India has always been interested in American elections. As a matter of fact there has always been an abiding interest in anything that takes place in America, good or bad. And it is not just from a cynical point of view. Few realize that there are close to 3 million people of Indian origin in the United States. Many of them have taken America as their adopted land and settled for good; and many others hoping for permanent residency first obtain American visas.
There are thousands of Indian students who make their way to American Universities every year and there are close to 250,000 people of Indian origin who are illegally in the country, hoping against hopes that a favorable ruling will on the way soon from the Congress!
The Indian American community is glued to the American electoral process, not just as a bystander but actively participating and involving itself in everything from fundraising to campaigning. Prominent Indian Americans in the last several years have aligned themselves with both Democrats and Republicans and doled out cash generously. And the community has taken pride in the fact that frontline Republicans like Governor Bobby Jindal and Governor Nikkie Hailey have been considered as "running mates."
So what is so special about November 6? The day after the first Presidential debate in Denver many prominent Indian newspapers featured stories on their front pages claiming that the incumbent President Barack Obama somehow "lost" the first round to his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. And many in various media outlets did not forget to make the point that although Obama held on to a slender lead in the opinion polls, 67 percent according to one post-first debate poll showed that it was Romney that came away the "winner."
There are at least three things that come to mind when one takes a look at India and the American Presidential scene—the official perspective, a look from that of a common person, with or without any links to the United States, and the academic community along with intellectuals who see the larger picture beyond "The Race for The White House."
Official India does not pick sides in the Presidential election. In fact bilateral relations have developed to such an extent that it really does not matter who takes office after November 6. In the last fifteen years successive leaders in Washington and New Delhi have placed such a premium on enhancing relations that there is simply no looking back. Every now and then there is a public spat but the bottom line realization has always been that differences between two vibrant democracies are bound to happen, politically, economically and strategically.
What Official India concerns itself with is American foreign policy globally and in the Asia-Pacific, especially as it relates to China and Pakistan. Globally in the ongoing war against terror there is no mistaking where these two democracies stand, and Washington is acutely aware of the fact that a young democracy like India has been a consistent victim of state sponsored terror almost since Independence.
Yet it rattles the Officialdom here in India that any administration would continue to dole out billions of dollars to Pakistan for so-called "fighting terror" when Washington knows full well that these funds are being diverted for other purposes. But the bottom line, at least in private, has also been that it is in the best interests of India and the United States to keep Pakistan from disintegrating, which would be an absolute disaster not just for South Asia but for the world.
In the last several years what has come to attract the attention of the average person in India has been the issue of skilled Visas—generally referred to as the H1B. That these numbers have come down from an all time high of 195,000 to just 65,000 is just one side of the story. The other part is the anguish that both Republicans and Democrats are now employing anti-outsourcing rhetoric with some states crafting legislation that prevents jobs from going overseas. What many in India do not realize is that during an election year frenzy no Presidential candidate wants to be left behind in this anti-outsourcing bandwagon for fear of being seen as "soft" on an issue that is deemed important in economically troubled times.
To the common knowledgeable person in India, an American Presidential Election is something amazing—the sheer stamina through the primaries and caucuses, candidates falling by the way side, media gunning for stories on private lives that are taboo in an Indian setting, the billions of dollars spent over a period of two years or so, the national conventions, the raft of opinion polls, the electoral college and finally the day that really matters. Two democracies running essentially the same political show but through totally different processes.
And then a serious student of American politics in India, the academic and intellectual community, poses a different sort of question—what will be the composition of the American Congress after November 6? Assuming that the House of Representatives remains with the Grand Old Party, what is the story in the Senate? Will the Democrats hold ground given that they are defending 23 out of the 33 seats up for grabs and that the Republicans need to win only 14 out of 33 to take control? What are the implications for domestic and foreign policies and its impact on India? The learned audience in India knows full well that not all things get done by Executive fiat in the White House.
The expert community on American politics are convinced no matter who comes to the White House on November 6, the stakes for the United States and the world are very clear—the country will have to come out of its economic slump and Washington will have to play a convincing role in global politics, be it with respect to China, the so-called Arab Spring or in dealing with Iran. It is one thing to want to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions but how a Democratic or a Republican administration is going about this business is a different matter entirely.
The Bush administration paid the price not just for America but for the world at large by taking its eye off Afghanistan and the war on terror by getting into a gross misadventure in Iraq. The question now is if an Obama or Romney administration will continue with diplomacy, tightening the financial noose or showing off its military wares in the Strait of Hormuz regarding Iran.
Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami is the Head of the School of Media Studies, SRM University, Chennai, India. Previously he was a senior journalist in the Washington Bureaus of The Hindu and The Press Trust of India between 1995 and 2008. Prior to that he served as The Hindu’s Special Correspondent for Southeast Asia, where he was based in Singapore.