Counterpoint: The American President
There’s much to celebrate about Indian democracy, but when I look at the current US election process, I recognise that we still have a long way to go, writes Vir Sanghvi.Updated: May 11, 2008 16:29 IST
I have a theory about US elections that is so simplistic that most Americans laugh in my face when they hear it. But I’ve stuck by it for something like 20 years now and it has never let me down. Broadly, my argument goes like this: America is a deeply conservative country that associates leadership with a traditional American (White Anglo Saxon Protestant, even) identity. So, Americans will sing the praises of the melting pot theory of nationhood. But when it comes to the crunch, they’ll vote for a President who sounds American.
<b1>Think about it. Here’s a list of American Presidents since World War II: FD Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Can you spot a single ethnic name in that list? The nearest you get to any kind of difference is JFK who was Irish and Catholic but that, I would argue, is not truly ethnic.
The only time my theory is really put to the test is during the primaries. Such is the anti-ethnic bias of America presidential politics that both major parties usually nominate people with good Anglo-Saxon names. But there are ethnic candidates in the primaries and I always bet against them. Usually I am right. But in 1988, when the Democrats chose Michael Dukakis as their presidential candidate, my theory seemed to be in trouble. Nevertheless I insisted that George Bush would beat Dukakis. Even when Dukakis was racing ahead of Bush in the opinion polls (at one stage, he was a full 10 points ahead), and people told me that it was time to accept that America had changed, I stuck to my guns. “President Bush” sounded right, I said. It was hard to imagine America being led by a “President Dukakis”.
Guess what? Bush came back from behind to win and nobody’s heard of Dukakis since then.
I approached this year’s race with the same set of prejudices. Two years ago, at the HT Summit, I got into an argument with Michael Eisner (who had just stepped down as head of Walt Disney and was a speaker) about Rudy Giuliani, another speaker. Eisner reckoned that Giuliani, then still seen as the man who rallied New Yorkers after 9/11, was a shoe-in for the Republican nomination. “Won’t happen,” I said. “President Giuliani doesn’t sound American enough.”
And, as we all know, he dropped out pretty early in the race, leaving the field clear for John McCain (such an American name! You can almost see him starring in a geriatric retread of the Die Hard movies). As McCain was always my pick for the nomination, I was relieved.
As of this writing, we are still not sure who the Democratic nominee will be. The law of un-ethnic names would suggest that Hillary Clinton should get ahead but she’s such a dreadful woman that I find myself rooting for Barack Obama and I hope that he gets the nomination — which I think he probably will.
To be consistent with my theory though, I would argue that Obama will be the Dukakis of his generation. And that John McCain will be the next President of the United States. (Okay, you can crucify me in October if I’m wrong but at least I’ve put my money where my mouth is.)
Whether or not you accept my theory — and if, like most people, you think I’m a fool for reducing everything to such a simplistic level, don’t be afraid to say so. I won’t be offended — there’s no doubt that the US presidential election process is a brilliant example of democracy in action. The fact that we should be discussing the outcome of a US election so many thousands of miles away demonstrates how American democracy has captured the global imagination.
But it also shows us how shamefully inadequate Indian democracy can be — despite its undoubted strengths in many areas.
How do Indian Prime Ministers get chosen? Do we have anything like the process that so distinguishes US democracy? Do candidates get put through such rigorous tests? Are they forced to make their views as clear before we decide to vote for them?
Of course not. If the US election had been held in India, we’d have all put our money on Hillary arguing that now that the Bush dynasty had finished its term, it was the Clinton dynasty’s turn.
You could argue that we do not have a Presidential system and so there is no exact parallel between the US election and ours. Fair enough. But compare India to other parliamentary democracies. Take England, for instance. The Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader (and shadow prime minister) after a full-fledged internal election and a campaign that forced all candidates to state their positions on issues. Gordon Brown did not just take over from Tony Blair because he was the obvious internal successor. Even he had to fight a party election. More to the point, Labour’s Deputy Leader was also elected only after a rigorous electoral process.
Contrast this with India. When was the last time that any of us saw a Prime Minister being elected by his own party? Manmohan Singh has made a terrific PM but he was nominated to the job. The decision to make AB Vajpayee the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate over LK Advani was suddenly sprung on the nation when Advani announced it one fine day in 1995. It is true that as the senior of the two, Vajpayee had a claim to the job but it is as true that in the decade preceding that announcement, the BJP had systematically sidelined him while promoting Advani as its leader.
Consider the elevations of HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. Nobody had any clue that either of these men were even in the running for the prime ministership when India went to the polls in 1996. Both were thrown up by the vagaries of coalition politics, by the need to find an uncontroversial candidate around whom a consensus could develop.
Go back a little and the same applies. Nobody really elected Narasimha Rao. He was a sick old man who had retired from politics (he did not even contest the 1991 elections) when the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi created a crisis for the Congress. Rao seemed like a harmless old buffer so his party colleagues backed him. (Boy, were they wrong about him!)
The VP Singh-Chandrashekhar story is even more disgraceful. VP Singh’s party did not get a majority. It came to power only because the BJP joined the CPM in an unholy alliance to keep the Congress out of office. Even then VP Singh was not the obvious choice. Chandrashekhar, a veteran Janata leader, staked his claim to the job and only withdrew it when he was told that Devi Lal was the compromise choice. A meeting of the parliamentary party duly nominated (not elected) Lal, following a pre-arranged script, then declared that he was passing the job on to Singh who grabbed the post and ran with it.
Passing the job on? Is that how the Prime Minister of India should be chosen?
And, of course, Chandrashekhar had his revenge when he split VP Singh’s party and became PM with outside support from the Congress.
To find a Prime Minister of India who was legitimately elected — in the sense that his party campaigned on the basis that he would be PM and then won a majority in his name — we have to go back to the 1984 election when Rajiv Gandhi won his landslide.
For nearly a quarter of a century, no party or electorate has properly chosen a Prime Minister of India.
Shameful, isn’t it?
So, while I may have my curious little theories about the basis on which Americans choose their Presidents, I have nothing but admiration for the process that puts a man in the White House. It must be the most participative, democratic exercise anywhere in the world and America has a right to be proud of its electoral system.
Sadly, there’s less and less for us to be proud of. We may have been lucky with Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh but the way things are going, it is almost certain that the next few occupants of Race Course Road will either be weak compromise candidates or venal regional chieftains who have played the coalition game. The final decision will depend on deal-making, caste, religion and, probably, money power.
So, yes, there’s much to celebrate about Indian democracy. But when I look at the current US election process, I recognise that we still have a long way to go.