America's President, not the world's

Published: 08 November, 2012 07:09 IST | Sachin Kalbag |

There was considerable excitement at the victory of US President Barack Obama, who retained his job for another four years.

There was considerable excitement at the victory of US President Barack Obama, who retained his job for another four years. There were, quite literally, thousands of posts on Twitter, perhaps an equal number of Facebook messages. There were picture memes created on the fly, and lively debates dominated news television all day long. Numerous experts weighed in on these channels on how the next four years will be under the third consecutive American President to be elected for a second term (Bill Clinton and George W Bush being the immediately prior two-term presidents).

Evidently, India celebrated Obama’s victory rather enthusiastically. Obama retaining the presidency will count as one of the most significant political events of the year, but India would do well to remember that he is America’s President, not the world’s, and certainly not India’s.

As in 2008, the 2012 election was about the American economy. And jobs. And healthcare. And taxes. And education. And immigration. Both Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney spoke only about these issues, and hardly anything else. They did speak about the environment, but only if they were forced to.

Just a prez: Obama greets the crowds

They did not speak about India, only a little about China, not Afghanistan, not Iraq, not even Iran and its nuclear weapons capability (well, to a certain extent in the second televised presidential debate they did speak about Iran and China, but it was only because the debate was on foreign policy).

In a full-length interview to a newspaper in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, perhaps the most important state in the US presidential polls process, Obama focused on five things: Manufacturing and related tax codes, education, energy independence, deficit reduction, and rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

In the 4,200-word interview, the number of times Obama mentioned India was zero. The Des Moines Register, which assumes the status of the most important newspaper in the US during the presidential polls, also interviewed Romney. In the 40-minute interview, again, there was no mention of India. He focused on more or less the same topics that Obama spoke about.

It is natural that India would be nowhere in the picture in the US polls. There is no reason why it should. Does the US feature as a prominent topic of discussion in the Lok Sabha elections every five years?

US presidential campaigns, as do India’s Lok Sabha elections focus on issues most important to the electorate, not to another country. And these issues are common to India and the US: jobs, prices, the economy and whether your ideology matches with the voter’s. In India, you could add caste and religion to the recipe.

At best, therefore, the US presidential election makes for high-voltage drama. It is live and suspenseful reality television that plays for less than a day (unlike in India, the votes are counted the same day, despite a paper ballot). Then, that’s it. It is business as usual.

Also, in the four years of his first term, Obama has done precious little to take the US-India relationship forward from where Bush left. The nuclear deal is in some sort of suspended animation, and with American firms not getting the lucrative deals that the French, for instance, have got, the US President has no incentive to push it. In fact, when he was Senator, Obama was one of the fiercest critics of the US-India nuclear agreement.

So why are Obama and the US presidential election so popular in India? And why was his re-election given the enthusiastic and rapturous reception in both traditional as well as social media, especially since his politics has little, perhaps even negative, impact on India.

It could be because Obama is possibly the most inspirational public speaker today. He has been recognised as one since his superlative speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 where he endorsed John Kerry’s nomination for President. He’s also telegenic.

Partly because of his stellar speech-writing team and partly because of his oratory, Obama is possibly one of the great speakers of all time. He reaches out to the middle-class and talks about their problems; he speaks about the great respect he has for his parents and grandparents (a trait Indians love) and even if he has not delivered much on immigration reform (another thing that Indians love) he talks about it a lot. Recession or not, the H1-B and L1 are two of the most sought after visas in India. Of course, Romney’s sometimes-bizarre statements on the middle-class and cutting taxes for the rich may have played a role in alienating him from the Indian thinking class.

But here’s the thing: none of that really matters. It will be business as usual in Washington, DC, from today. India will have to deal with political and corporate corruption for daily news staples, while Obama will continue to keep India off the radar. 

Sachin Kalbag is executive editor of MiD DAY. Follow him on Twitter at @SachinKalbag

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