Neha Dixit notes down the amusing differences between the Indian and American election campaign during her nine weeks long fellowship in the US
Yesterday was the last day of the US Presidential Election Campaign. They say the race between Obama and Romney is razor thin. They will vote today. The results will be out soon.
The Conventions are over. Those that were like watching a baseball team’s choreographed skirmish. The rehearsed pauses and the tutored grins of political campaigners will only return four years later. And the next time over 15,000 international journalists come together to cover 5,000 people will only be at the 2014 Olympics.
The gay pride bandanas and the cat collars sold as the Democratic Party merchandise will no more stare at me. To remind me of the story, an activist friend from Orissa recently narrated, where an electoral candidate in the local elections gave away television sets and DVD players as freebies to Bonda tribals in the remotest corners of Orissa with no electricity and roads. To insist upon the differences between the class differences and behavior patterns of the American and the Indian voter.
During my nine week fellowship in the US, such variances were in abundance. The subtle differences in small exercises of democracy make it impossible not to contrast the Indian and the American elections. To not notice them was like ignoring the array of creative election symbols on an Indian ballot paper.
First Ladies and their first loves
It was Sharad Yadav’s house once again in 2009 when I had to talk to him about his opposition to the women’s reservation bill. He was sitting on a sofa, right next to his wife, Rekha, who was immaculately dressed in a red printed sari. He said, “We want Draupadis and not Savitris in Indian politics” while Rekha served us tea. When I asked her to join us, she said, “I will have it after you guys are done,” and immersed herself in her husband’s explanation of why if the bill is passed only ‘par kati aurtein’ (women of the elite class) like Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat will make it to the Parliament. He said, pointing towards his wife, “Now, she is a doctor and all and that’s okay. But tomorrow, if she steps into a Parliament, she will be a disaster. She will not even know a word to say.” Embarrassed at this public underestimation of her, I tried to notice Rekha’s reaction from the corner of my eye. She was laughing, blushing. Her eyes gleamed with pride at the foresightedness of her husband. Gulping the reflex of my inherent feminism, I smiled too and continued with my interview.
I heard Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, last month at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “But today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago…even more than I did 23 years ago, when we first met,” and I recollected the same unquestioned devoutness I had seen on Rekha’s face. That, which comes from the demotion to being the ‘other half,’ instead of an independent thinking individual. That obviousness of the better judgment of the husband. The emphasis on the conjugal symbiosis than a better knowledge of the affairs of the world. Ann Romney, wife of Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US elections translated that same submissiveness into a speech that sounded like the experiences of a vegetarian who recently turned non-vegetarian at the Republican Convention in Tampa. She too, invoked the stereotype of ‘perfect man in a marriage’, “Tonight, I want to talk to you about love. I want to talk to you about the deep and abiding love I have for a man I met at a dance many years ago”.
Now, fancy Kamla Advani, BJP leader, LK Advani’s wife, who always accompanies him for any public meeting but never utters a word, decided to address masses on a rath yatra in Ayodhya. Asserting her love like Surpanakha of Ramayana instead of the coy Sita. Or Gursharan Kaur, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife, discussing how she met Singh at a prom instead of discussing the price of an LPG cylinder. Or the quintessential bachelor of Indian politics, Bhishm pitamah Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s orating his poetry ‘hindu tan-man, hindu jeevan rang, hindu, rang hindu mera parichay’ and in between a love interest shows up to talk about her an unrequited love. I wonder what will make headlines first: protests of the moral custodians on the women breaking their domestic virginity or it spelling political suicide due to an attack on the family values of the voters.
And even when both Michelle and Ann, both dogged advocate for their husbands do not do any good to the voters by loving them more, both Obama and Romney start their speeches at their respective Conventions by thanking the loves of their lives. Unfortunately and blandly enough, in India, the two most potent candidates for Prime Ministership for 2014 General elections, Rahul Gandhi from the ruling party, Congress and Narendra Modi from the main opposition party, BJP are woman-less. To the extent that even mentioning them is a political horror.Rahul, who apparently had/has a Spanish girlfriend, Veronique, who is an architect, and we heard off last in 2004 and Modi who abandoned his wife Jashodaben, long ago in the ‘70s because she was simply not good enough for him and now even teaches Muslim students in a remote village in Gujarat.
Vaginas are everybody’s business
A Harvard trained lawyer Michelle Obama says, ‘my most important title is mom-in-chief’. Ann Romney, with 18 grandchildren believes, “It’s the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together.”
Motherhood is a dice universally tossed around for all manipulative purposes. The first lady and the potential one, like India where bahu-ness scoring maximum points, see no harm in invoking the ‘family’ and the hearth. Which is why, absolutely no harm is seen in making a woman’s vagina everyone’s business. Because it concerns the ‘family.’
Which is why theorizing, illegitimising and mystifying rape and rape victims comes in handy, be it in India or United States. Like in India, even if stones or thorny sticks are hurled inside my vagina, it will not b2e rape according to the Indian Penal Code. And likewise, in August this year, when the Presidential campaign just kicked off here, Todd Akin, a Republican candidate who represents Missouri’s second congressional district told a news station in the interview, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Thus, a rape victim cannot get pregnant because it is not ‘legitimate’ rape. The statement does not instigate disbelief because we have heard the likes of Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, calling rape cases in her state ‘cooked up cases’ just a few months ago in February in order to convince the masses of the perfectness of law and order situation since she took over.
And that’s why when I read Republican Stephen Friend’s quote, ‘Rape, is obviously a traumatic experience. When the traumatic experience is undergone, a woman secretes a certain secretion, which has a tendency to kill sperms.’ These predetermined notions about women are often translated into vagina politics. That is why a very deeply sexist Mulayam Singh Yadav, who opposed the women reservation bill because ‘ab udyog-patiyon aur afsaron ki ladkiyan Parliament mein aayengi, jinhen dekh kar ladke seeti bajaenge’ was forced to play the rape card during his political campaign. The Samajwadi party manifesto promised jobs to rape victims or one of their family members if it came to power. It has been six months since his son Akhilesh Yadav was sworn in and yet we hear no signs of its implementation reflecting the tokenism of vagina politics.
“Americans want to vote for a person with whom they can sit and have a glass of beer”, says Tom Hansen, a former US diplomat and my host father during this fellowship. Evidently, Michelle Obama in her opening speech at the DNC mentioned her father who “was a pump operator at the city water plant”, and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when she her brother were “very young”. Barack Obama does not forget to tell Malia and Sasha (his daughters), that he is “so proud” of them. And yes, they “do have to go to school in the morning.” Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son does not forget to establish his army background when he says, “Four years ago, because I was going to Iraq, I asked you to be there for my dad, and you were.” Ann Romney attempts to be one among the middle class audiences in her speech, when she recounts days of her early domestic life of limited resources, “Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen.” When Mitt Romney abruptly says, “But Paul, I still like the playlist on my iPod better than yours,” while introducing the blimey of his vice presidential candidate, he is clearly making a desperate endeavor to contrast his unknown ‘casual regular self’ with his larger than life multi-millionaire public image.
I realized this undercurrent of a one to one technique is American politics on meeting David Dewhurst, the Lieutenant governor of Texas and technically the most powerful person of one of the most right wing state in America. Epitomizing the rodeo cowboy tradition, a big buckle on his belt stands out as he shakes hands and greets me. A saddle miniature adorns his room and half an hour into the conversation, he mentions his visit to India last month. He pauses expecting my response while I am busy taking notes. He repeats, “In my last visit to India…India” and waits for me to lift up my head and nod in acknowledgement, smiles and then continues. He turned to answer Wilson, my fellow journalist from Colombia to answer a question in Spanish. Post the meeting, he asks us to wait while he gets his pictures riding the bull and shows them with great pride explaining how it’s done and observing our reactions with great curiosity.
While in India, a Parliamentary form of government leaves little scope to match up to the personality cult practiced in the Presidential form of the US, the effectiveness of this strategy is realized by many in Indian politics. BJP leader Uma Bharti is known to flaunt her doll collection. It is the first door to her personal life. She is also known for her sworn in loyalty to several gangs of girls often comprising of old timer women journalists. When I met her, just before her ‘save the Ganga’ campaign last year, she identified me immediately. “Are you the same girl who came to interview me in a pink Chikan saree last month?” she asked. That line was a throw away for any journalist. I grabbed it and after half an hour of discussion on life and weight issues over tulsi chai brewed for exactly five minutes under her instructions, she cupped her cheeks and said, “Your cheek bones resemble mine. You should tell your mother in Lucknow that you have a new mother now. She does not need to worry about anything as long as I am there.” I chuckled inside my head imagining all future interview possibilities. Unfortunately, the mother did not make much time for her new daughter in the years that followed.
All politics is local, personal.
‘I nominate Jesus’
On a chilly, bright morning, over 200 hundred people, dressed in their best hats, women in polka dots and perfect hair dos and men in their finest tuxedos, rose to hug me and a fellow journalist from South Africa. We were first-time visitors at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, DC. It was the first Sunday after the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and the church was buzzing with comments on what Obama said and what he meant. The Chief Minister of the Church, Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. started the Proclamation of God’s word by declaring, “I nominate Jesus”. The Minister’s parody of the choreographed Democratic and Republican Convention electrocuted the mass like a live wire. The reflex of the crowd was a jerky applause. He said, ‘the battle is not over. It’s between Jesus, the spiritual leader and Jesus, the politician…Jesus has no bank accounts in Swiss Banks, no far hand man of the labour union, he has no fat cheques for donations, has no big business.’ A subtle attack on Mitt Romney seemed all the more potent when he said that ‘melanin’ is the cause of all problems. 85 year old, Samantha, sitting in the row ahead of me, who passionately hugged me 15 minutes back, turned around, made eye contact with me and broke out, ‘… and Obama has also managed to set a great example of a perfect black family with a wife and two daughters.’ The message was clear, vote for Obama Social conservatism has typically meant an advocacy of traditional social order, a defence of family values and a belief in gradual, as opposed to radical change. While we have heard the right wing Grand old Party of its Catholic politics but even the Democrats are forced to conform to the Christian ideas of family and character.
Complexities of the usual Catholic politics in the United States are no less brutal than the politics of the Hindutva and secular brigade in India.
Paul Ryan’s staunch record of opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage which appeals to evangelical Protestant constituents reverberates the vehement protests of Niramala Sitharaman against the ruling UPA when she says, “the ruling government is not applying its mind to the decriminalization of gay sex case in the Supreme Court to illegalize it.” This seamless commitment to religion is emblematic feature of both, the world’s largest and the world’s strongest democracy.
While the BJP throws Sadhvi Rithamabara with her poisonous, polarized speeches to form a Hindu rashtra, Obama and Romney choose to miss an entire day of campaign events to attend church services. And then there are senior UP Congress leaders like Vishnudev Prasad Yadav who conducted ‘yajna’ just before the declaration of the UP election results in March 2012 this year so that the almighty blesses Rahul with both a bride as well as his party’s electoral triumph in Uttar Pradesh.
Sarees, spatulas and breakfast slots
I was catching up with Raju Bhaiya of ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ stores near my grandparents’ house in Lucknow. It was April, 2004 and he wanted to know all about Delhi University including if it’s true that women actually openly smoke cigarettes in the DU campus. Kamini, the cook at my grandparents’ house, came running to me to tell me that my grandfather wants me home right away. Within two minutes I was in the living room, which always never fails to make it apparent that at least 12 children spent their summer vacations ever year in that room, with an indoor stapoo corner and a cricket wicket drawn on the opposite wall. I was told in a predictable patriarchal fashion to stay within the confines of the house since there was a stampede at Chandra Shekhar Park. The park is 200 metres from this house. On that very day, BJP leader Lal ji Tandon, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s election agent at that time, was celebrating his 70th birthday at this park. Lok Sabha elections were 12 days away and NDA government was still officially in power. Around 10,000 lower-income group women had gathered with their children to collect synthetic sarees worth Rs 100 each that were being distributed as a ‘gift’. A sudden clamour and desperation at the distribution point near the exit gate at 2.30 in the afternoon led to a stampede and left 21 women dead in a span of half an hour. In the evening, my intrigued yet voyeuristic self, helped me steal a visit to the park. It was littered with chappals and shoes, which bore mute testimony to the tragedy, even as undistributed heaps of newly packed sarees lay at a counter.
Four separate stacks for small, medium, large and extra-large Obama T-shirts at the Merchandising section at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, last month evoked the same intrigue in me. The one that punctured me and found me guilty of morose voyeurism, eight years back. Coming from a country where Rs 1,00,000 were handed out to those who died in the saree stampede, the idea of common, middle class flocking around these t-shirt counters in the US with same intensity stirred scary thoughts. Waiting in a long queue behind the counter at the convention area, Hannah Anderson, 28, is part of the Arizona delegate. She and her three family members travelled to Charlotte for three days at their own expense, very dissimilar to the delegates attending the political rallies in India where people in the rural areas are lured on the pretext of showing them around the shehar and providing unlimited boxes of poori-sabzi and used as fillers in rallies. Hannah says, “It will be so much fun frying eggs with Obama spatulas.” She had also bought Obama dolls, $10 Joe Biden beer can holders and Michelle Obama’s face on feminist propaganda posters of the World War II era.
Rana Reeves, founder of branding agency John Doe, believes buying something, rather than making a donation, appeals to a “younger segment”. Young people understand consumerism. They want something back and this becomes a transaction.” An individual’s purchase of official campaign merchandise is counted as a contribution, which could help explain why Obama boasts a big advantage in small-dollar donors: 48 percent of Obama’s fundraising comes from donors giving $200 or less; 24 percent of Romney’s money comes from similar donors. While Romney’s online store has three T-shirt designs compared to Obama’s 50 –he gives away a sweater vest with every donation of $100.
According to the Democratic sponsorship brochure, donors who gave a combined $100,000 to Obama and Democratic congressional candidates got 50 tickets to a party after Obama’s acceptance speech featuring and musical entertainment by the Miami rapper Pitbull and the New York pop band Scissor Sisters.
Brown says, “When an average American voter donates money to a campaign, s/he is not expecting the party to change its political stand, just some time from the political candidates to meet then when they are making a decision on a particular issue of importance.”
Merchandises of the two camps are also reminiscent of their outlook on social issues. For instance, Mitt Romney items include silver “R” necklace, a “Catholics for Romney” button and a white, pink or blue baby onesie, clearly weaving the politics of the Church and the pro-life stand of the Grand Old Party. Obama’s campaign on the other hand, has got involved in beauty. Fashion blogs are onboard, a first in American history. Focusing on the youth, Obama has even endorsed Le Metier de Beaute nail polishes – called Bo Blue, Victory White and Red-y.
Anne Brown, Vice President, Harris Media, who designed the online campaign for Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas says messaging strategists are changing the rules of political funding. She says, “Even though, email is the most successful method of raising money online, the next big thing is going to be text to donate.” Each text for the Obama campaign means a donation of $10.
Being the first Presidential elections in the US after the Supreme Court ruled out the necessity to declare the names of the corporate houses donating money to the political campaigns, these elections showcase an interesting cocktail of the rich-poor, individual-corporate associations with the two political groups. This corporate funding makes corruption a low hanging fruit both in the United States and India.
Indian voters are programmed to be pleased when they are treated for free. The American voters’s psyche is pleased when provided with an opportunity to utilize their consumerist instincts. It makes them happy when they buy. The Indian voter is from the low income groups, the American voter is from the middle class.
Consumerism is the backbone of American elections. The voter buys time from the public servant and then stake claims. Indian politicians do not sell publicly and the average voter never buys, neither breakfast slots nor promises of future meetings.
Mexico and Bangladesh
Daniel, the most popular Spanish news anchor in United States says, “The very fact that both Romney and Obama agreed to listen for an interview in Spanish with the help of the interpreter means they are recognizing the growing political power of the Hispanics.” Over a million Hispanics are under 18 and promise the potential of turning into a large vote base once they turn adults. Which is why, even when Marc Anthony was struggling with Spanish, he was adamant on not switching to English when being interviewed by journalists at the Democratic National Convention where he sung the American national anthem. Immigrants from Mexico, Cuba made speeches at the DNC narrating their success at living the American dream, claiming how they do not live under the fear of deportation under Obama. They quote a Spanish saying, “Tell me who you walk with and I will tell you who you are.” The Republican National Convention at Tampa was reverberating with the white, old, male sentiment which is strongly anti-immigration. Not very different from the right wing Hindutva forces in India often protesting against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and scaring the hell out of immigrants from Bangladesh.
It is this attempt at inclusivity that the LGBT Caucus at the Democratic Convention was given the prime time spot. When Wendy, a lesbian school teacher said, “Party told the LGBT all these years, it is not yet. The ‘yet’ has come now,” the colossal crowd roared in unanimity to support gay marriage. That ‘yet’ is yet to come in the Indian political scene. While the right wingers try to cure ‘gays’ and the secular parties subvert its legalisation in the Supreme Court even the progressive Left parties in India are yet to make it a political issue.
Also, both the Conventions in the United States choreographed the inclusion of the common man. Twenty four year old Wilson lost both his parents because of no health insurance. He cried and wept on the stage when he said, “people’s parents should not die,’ and that’s why Obama is important. Infact, Obama spoke of his grandmother, who died 8 days before he was sworn as the president, even in the Presidential debate with Romney that she could be independent because of social security and health insurance.
Health policy, being the key issue on which the Presidential elections are being fought this year was repeatedly evoked with different nuances. While Nancy Pelosi strongly objected to ‘being a woman as a pre-existing medical condition’ according to health insurance companies, the Republicans talked about paying policy amount as a way of life instead of letting the government use their money for health welfares which are ‘a waste’ like abortion.
Personal anecdotes and experiences were peppered. The most basic human emotions are irked with demands for the elementary when Ryan from Boulder, Colorado talks about education. “Obama fought for students like me who had no money.”
When a police man and a fire fighter share the same stage as the Presidential candidate talking about the Presidential candidate honouring public service, it breaks that feudal dynamics which is often seen on the stages of Indian political campaigns where the voter is expected to simply receive the message, not send out one.
We don’t mind having Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav on our Facebook friend’s list but we dread having our extended family on the same. When a BJD leader, Baijayant Panda comments on my most frivolous rant about all men being hyenas, it exhilarates me, amuses me. I feel connected and it makes me think he is human and beyond his serious persona. Indian journalists often receive text updates from the BJP’s control room to read Advaniji’s new blog. In fact, posts from blog.thakurmarsingh.com were one of the most popular topics of discussion till it faded out after Amar Singh’s lost love with politics.
Federal Commission makes it mandatory for radio to run the political ads of the people running for a senate or president. However, campaign managers believe that voters are learning to skip television and radio ads.
It is important for politicians to be conscious of technology because voters are not on the receiving end any more, they are now participating too. Anne Brown, Vice President, Harris media, who designed the online campaign for Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas says, “It is always difficult to convince the old school men of political parties to fund digital campaigns. But after Obama’s successful online campaign in 2008, the parties are realizing its potential.” She says that an average US Senate campaign costs anywhere between $ 6,000 to $16,000 per month. Obama had four years to build his digital campaign this time. He had the perfectly responsive website and was the first to come up with the HTML5 website in US. Sudheendra Kulkarni, one of the spin doctors for LK Advani, the Prime Ministerial candidate in the last General Elections had put a great emphasis on online campaigning in 2009 following the precedent set by Obama in 2008 US Presidential elections.
With 25 percent of Indian population and 20 percent of US under 25 years of age, online connection with the voters is being seen as most potent tool to micro target. It is used to divide the electorate by sending different messages to voters of different allegiances, which is easy to figure out through their online activities.
Daniel Schnur, once a campaign manager and now a professor of political science at University of South California calls himself a professional backseat driver. He says, “Communication planning for a campaign involves being popular.” This also includes the candidate sharing every small detail about their lives including good and bad personal details with the campaign manager. “We ask questions like if they ever had an abortion, did they ever accept a bribe, have an extra-marital affair. Such details are quickly unearthed by the opposite camps anyway so the managers must be better prepared to handle it,” he says. These details are quick to surface and spread online faster.
And that’s why campaign managers throughout the US keep track of the online activity of the target voter. As a formula, and that too a scary one for the average ignorant, innocent masses, for almost any negative propaganda, positive content is added online to even out the algorithm on Google search for the candidate.
Online campaigns also leave a scope for an immediate response. During Republican National Convention this year when we say a bit of ‘Eastwooding’ when actor Clint Eastwood spoke to an invisible Obama on the chair, the Obama campaign managers were quick to come out with a number of graphics criticizing Eastwood and lampooning him instead and calling the invisible chair as the ‘chair of hope’. “Pro-active, immediate responses like these were not possible during the radio-television campaign days”, says Brown.
Also, in states like Texas, Romney and Obama TV commercials are not shown because the election alliance is already decided.
Yet, the internet percolation in India is a mere 10 percent and with over a billion population and that is why internet still as a tool is restricted to the urban, educated, passive middle class which is not the target vote base that needs to be wooed to win elections in this country.
However, it is an undeniable truth in both the countries that technology is changing the rules of politics, both on the upside and the downside.
The fluorescent green hoarding screamed, “You can shave after the elections. Volunteer for President Obama this weekend” written in bright yellow as I exited the Minneapolis airport. The arrogant Indian voter in me asked, ‘Why should I volunteer for an electoral candidate?” as it is often the case in an average middle class household in India.
US and India are thick as thieves in transforming their campaigns into a political theatre. The US conventions thank their DJs and the music band who sing for them, the Indians thrive on the local artists on dholak and harmonium and the Bollywood gene bang. The US characters rehearse their pauses and try not to look at their watch like George Bush during a debate to seem less serious about issues of profound importance. The Indian characters make their speech as poisonous and try not to snooze like Uma Bharti or Nitin Gadkari on the stage.
Both of them display their best candidates even when JFK and Indira Gandhi never cease to be ghosts from the past who inspire. They whip moralities and prejudices and the voters from both the countries become the players in the spectacle of a warped democratic exercise.
The most expensive presidential race in US history is at its fag end. This hard-fought race has laid bare for me the most polarized American electorates who are choosing between two paths that seem superficially diverse and yet remain united at the core. Just like the Indian polarized voter is forced to choose between seemingly different parties representing different caste, religious and regional allegiances on the surface but at the core are united in their embrace of economic liberalization.
Published on countercurrents.org on November 6, 2012w