[ The Echo of India 23 Aug 2012 ]
Many middle-class people in subcontinent are attracted by the discreet charm of an authoritarian state – ruthless and decisive. A pluralist democracy is deemed to be slow and inefficient by them. Which is why they also regard a two-party system as the next best thing. This of course is said keeping the United States of America in mind, which is the pre-eminent poster child of a two-party system. Of course a two party system is not one which limits participation to two parties or two poles. Rather, it is a system that has been developed so that it manages to keep other voices out, or co-opt them. In fact, that a nation of 300 million has 2 parties to represent nearly 95% indicates a serious representation crisis that needs to be addressed. Far from its strength, a two party representation for such a large populations weakens the democratic foundations. This project is ably served by systemic forces including the mainstream media, who take it upon themselves to herd popular opinion along narrow bipartisan lines.
The outcome of presidential elections in the USA has its ripple effects in every part of the world. The powerhouse that it is in many respects – economic, military and academic, a slight twitch in the behemoth causes ruckus in some other part of the globe. Hence, US elections have undeniable effects on the world. So much so that some have even suggested that the world ought to have voting rights in US elections. Leaving that aside, in this presidential election year, the world is watching and so is the subcontinent. Having lives at both places, certain differences are worth discussing.
As the presidential election campaign will gain more and more momentum, there will be rallies. Now, in the USA, if a candidate manages a turnout of 10000 at one of these rallies, it will be considered outstanding, a groundswell of support and what not. In most parts of the subcontinent, a turnout of 10000 at a centrally located rally of a senior politician would be considered a failure. In fact, very few politicians would dare to even call a central rally if they think that the turnout would be around that figure. The rally turnout in the subcontinent is largely managed by political organizations who pack such rallies with adherents by enticements and threats. Some also attend by a since of belonging and loyalty to a party and its ideology. But typically, such gatherings have few ‘innocent bystanders’. The US rallies I have been to, have less of a stage-managed quality in its turnout but the stage is managed quite well. In such management of the stage, often trivial aspects of a speech like diction, voice, or things like posture become points of judging a person. This does not mean that political issues are not involved, but simply that in the USA, only a certain kind of grooming makes the cut, irrespective of political inclinations.
The politics of the subcontitent, due to its robust multi-cultural reality, with a million fault-lines, is a different game altogether. This is partly why ‘big tent’ parties have had their limits. Politicians of every level have to contend with more parameters than his or her US counterpart can ever imagine. This kind of politics requires a grade of acumen, one-upmanship, posturing and brinksmanship that more homogenuous societies cannot even start to fathom. If one imagines a video game form of politics with controls, knobs and joysticks thrown in for all the possible parameters, the typical US presidential candidate might not even be able to figure out the function of all the controls. In such a contest, Laloo Prasad would bodyslam George Bush every single time. Add to this the explicit role of armed violence in politics, and also the management of violent partisans. The subcontinental scene is filled with such proto-generalissimos and cunning politicians rolled into one. In the United States, explicit and large-scale political murders in the domestic scene, is more or less a thing of the past. The difference partly comes from a electorate whose concerns have moved somewhat beyond life and death, to starve or to eat, to be killed or not. Questions of the latter kind inject a kind of viciousness to the political competition that finds expression in murder of political opponents and a serious democratic deficit. A person who vociferously opposes or heckles Barack Obama or Mitt Romney can be booed and firmly pounced upon by ‘security’. There might be background checks. However, if someone does that to Mamata Banerjee, Biman Bose or Uma Bharti in a rally, depending on the locality, one can get into serious trouble. So much so that hardly any sane person who is alone ever opposes or challenges such politicians in public.
Most of the top-level ‘new’ generation leaders who have emerged in the subcontinent are sons and daughters of established politicians. This has led to the political system that increasingly looks like a multi-tiered dynastic oligarchy, with enough stakeholders spread in the various layers of the system to give it a pretense of the popular.
The US presidency retains a monarchical imprint and I do not mean the ornamental kind. Legend has it that the first US president, George Washington, was even asked to become king. It was possibly an apocryphal story but you get the drift – templates out of which it the presidency is partly moulded. This includes being an over-arching commader- in chief. That is why female aspirants to the US presidency like Clinton had to be appear tougher than the toughest to allay any doubts.
Neither in the US or or in the subcontinent does one need a majority of the votes to win an election. For the US election, the Electoral College system allows even for the minority candidate to win if the numbers so stack up. And it has happened as recently as 2000 when George Bush won the presidency with Al Gore winning more votes nationwide. However, an implication of a first-past the post system as it exists in US Congress and Senate elections and in the subcontinent at all levels is more ominous for a multi-party democracy. Due to the absence of proportional representation, shallow pluralities spread tactically can return commanding majorities. Democracy and decentralization means nothing when one can achieve majorities with about 1/3 rd support, as in the Indian union. Devolution means asking the powerful to legislate the relaxation of power from their own hands. Such debates are there in the US too, on the issue of 3rd partiesand on state rights versus central rights. The states in the USA, though more homogenous, have lots of power and autonomy, In the Indian Union, the states are alm-seekers during the day, cash-cows at night.