US elections: An Indian Perspective

By Amaresh Misra

As America goes to vote on 4th November 2008, a hitherto unseen specter is haunting the historic Obama-McCain stand-off; till now, electoral Pundits have relied basically on the traditional theory of both the Democratic and the Republican Party possessing roughly a 37%-37% base vote—and then the 20-26% Independent voter deciding the final outcome.

The Independent mantra however is questionable— it gives too much power to spin doctors on either side of the political divide and to the idea that voters in the middle can be swayed almost exclusively by a media blitzkrieg or some zany twists, like the nomination of Sarah Palin.

Laws of political science inform that the notion of the Independent voter cannot exist in a political vacuum. There has to be some magnetic pull, emerging from the base vote category, which can trigger the decisive slide of the Independent voter towards the winning side: in this scenario, it is unlikely that the phenomenon of hockey moms or even Wal Mart moms, or any other Independent category, voting any which way independently will decide the next American President.

Similar is the case with the impact the current Wall Street collapse; growing economic problems shifted media focus away from Sarah Palin; there was an uneasy question mark over the fundamentals of supply side Reagan-economics and the economic philosophy America should adopt for the 21st century. But, historically, economic uncertainty, unless it is of the Great Depression type with a figure like Roosevelt stimulating a class polarization, leads to less, not more voter participation in the electoral process; moreover, voters tend to vote both right and left in such an atmosphere.

To understand the invisible specter that seems to haunt the American electoral fight, one may have to look towards India, a country where regular elections since 1952 have thrown up what is known as a `base assertion’—as opposed to the `Independent voter assertion’—theory.

While America has a Presidential system, Indian democracy has a Parliamentary system; but electoral trend behavior in democracies has shown a wide level of similarity.

In India, from 1952 and roughly till the late 1980s, the Congress Party was able to win elections after elections because of the assertion of a single bloc: the minority-Muslim voter. Fighting on a socialist plank, Congress always formed a coalition of social forces and got the vote of the vast majority of India’s poor. Yet within that coalition, it was the assertion of the minority-Muslim vote in successive constituencies that provided the resources and the atmospherics for the non-Muslim poor to assert as well.

A quick look at Congress’ electoral graph over the years reveals a startling pattern: the party suffered significant defeats whenever, within the pro-Congress coalition, the minority-Muslim vote dipped by as little as 2-3%; thus in the 1967 General elections, the Congress lost more than 100 seats; in the 1977 General elections, when minority-Muslim support dipped by 10%, the Congress party was for a moment wiped off from the Indian electoral scene.

By the early 1990s, following a series of anti-minority-Muslim measures, most importantly the decision by a sitting Congress Prime Minister Narsimha Rao (who wanted to attract Hindu votes to the party) to allow the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, a town in the province of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the party lost the minority-Muslim support for the first time over an extended period. Consequently, throughout the 1990s, the Congress was relegated to an unthinkable third position, as the Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and a new secular and Left leaning anti-Congress front of regional parties slugged it out in the electoral arena.

Thus was born the phenomenon of regional secularism, wherein in UP and Bihar, two of India’s most populous states, backward caste, anti-Congress, anti-BJP Hindu leaders stormed to power, mainly on Muslim support. In both UP and Bihar Muslims formed roughly 15% of the total population. But their unprecedented electoral group-base assertion swayed the Independent voter completely in the favor of regional secularists.

A similar phenomenon accompanied the rise of Mayawati, the Dalit leader in UP, in the 1990s; Dalits, or the lowest of the low caste, comprise 22% of UP’s population; earlier, they used to vote for the Congress; but then, their vote was not part of a singular group assertion. Mayawati was able to triumph because the Dalits decided to jettison the Congress and identify with her totally.

In the American elections, the most obvious and simple aspect— the African American black vote in Obama’s favor— may well prove to be the most relevant in the final count. True, the black vote has traditionally been with the Democratic Party; and often, black assertion was not enough for a Democratic Party victory. But it has to be seen and analyzed as to how many times black assertion was base assertion— it seems that the three times when black assertion was base assertion, with Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton, the Democratic Party made history.

In the 2000 and 2004 American elections, Bush was able to defeat the Democrats, because somewhere along black assertion did not approximate in intensity to base assertion. On the other hand, the Christian Right, perhaps for the first time, asserted as a base for Republicans. Interestingly, the white vote, like the Hindu vote in India as such can never form a base assertion vote— it has been seen that in democracies, majority communities are too fragmented along class, regional or ethnic lines, to comprise a base assertion vote. The assertive minority vote has been decisive— and yet, ironically, it has remained so far the least recognized element of pre-election calculations.

In America, black assertion in Obama’s favor, is leading also to a pro-Democratic swing of Hispanic and white working class voters, much more than this otherwise would have been even in an economic crisis situation. In fact, the economic crisis has led blacks, the worst hit, to assert more as a group— few will recognize this at the end, but on 4th November 2008, America’s 12% minority blacks will play the determining role in choosing the next President of their country.

misra.amaresh@gmail.com

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