Come November, not just the Americans but the world has a date with history. True, the others can't vote in the presidential election but they have made their preference patently clear by filling the streets from Rome to London, from New Delhi to Islamabad against the current occupant of the White House. What seems obvious to millions abroad is blended into a mess of mixed messages by the spin machine here, leaving Americans deeply divided and even confused.
Yes, there is ferment in America. Anger and anxiety, some faith and many doubts, even fear and foreboding. The Americans know that George Bush vs John Kerry is no ordinary election but one in which the world has a stake. The Indian Americans are energised as never before, gaining a voice louder than their 5,00,000 votes. The second generation, unwilling to float uncommitted in political waters muddied by racial profiling, the draconian Patriot Act and anti-Muslim sentiments, is pushing the 'mummy daddy crowd' to stand up and be counted. The young and unafraid raised a cool million at a breakfast with the candidate last month under the banner "South Asians for Kerry" and now they are on a registration drive with "Just Vote Yaar!". Protection of civil rights is a top priority.
Interestingly, people in India have hedged their bets between the two candidates and anti-Bush sentiment is not leaping off the charts. India was one of only two countries (the other being Thailand) to exhibit a split personality in an international poll of 35 nations released last month by the University of Maryland (see Polscape). While even the Chinese preferred Kerry 52 per cent to 12 per cent, Indians were divided with 34 per cent for Kerry and 33 per cent for Bush. Traditional empathy for the Democratic Party appears to be waning in India at least among the hard-nosed pragmatists. The heart may still fancy the Democrats, but the mind turns right to the Republicans.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on his recent visit to New York, had a meaty one-hour meeting with Bush but did not connect to Kerry over the phone. Marshall Boutan, president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, recently returned from India worried about the pundit class swaying under the Republican magic. A retired US ambassador, also dismayed, pulled this correspondent aside to ask why the Indian government was swinging so rapturously to the Bush song. It is the Democrats who care for the United Nations, want to save the environment, tax the absolute rich and follow generally a more inclusive agenda. Surely, they are closer to India's weltanschauung.
But reasons for the Bush effect are obvious—he is a known quantity. On the positive side of the ledger, he has moved quickly on building a strategic partnership with India, enhanced military-to-military cooperation, removed most US sanctions imposed after India's 1998 nuclear tests, improved intelligence sharing on terrorism and liberalised access to US high technology. On the negative side, Bush hasn't leaned on Pakistan enough to permanently shut down terrorist camps, has dropped unpleasant surprises such as granting Pakistan a major non-NATO ally status, and refused to endorse India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council while supporting Brazil, Japan and Germany. But the Indian foreign policy establishment has made its peace with the Bush line. It values the friendship of such forceful personalities as Robert Blackwill, former ambassador to India, who could be national security advisor in Bush II. Blackwill has faithfully pushed India's case over numerous killjoy objections from the US bureaucracy.
John Kerry, by contrast, is a relative unknown and Indian officials fear traditional Democratic concerns casting a shadow. India's nuclear and missile programmes could come in for questioning, blocking some of the gains made during President Bush's tenure.Kerry has made no major policy statements on South Asia during the campaign. The Democratic Party platform dismissed India in two sentences, one prescriptive, the other patronising. "We must also take steps to reduce tension between India and Pakistan and guard against the possibility of their nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands," the platform said. The Republican manifesto not only devoted five times the space to India, but talked of a "historic transformation" of Indo-US relations under Bush, and envisioned a role for India in "creating a strategically stable Asia." And it did not mention the 'O' word (Outsourcing).
Kerry has become synonymous with opposition to outsourcing, the one area where India is really shining. It has driven some Silicon Valley types to the Republican camp. Ramesh Kapur, the doyen of Democratic Party activists, counters, saying Kerry only wants to close the tax loopholes for companies (see Rand Beers interview) that outsource jobs. He has to pay this price for support and funds from the labour unions. The Democrats have repeatedly assured Indian diplomats that campaign rhetoric must be taken with a kilo of salt and that Kerry is not a protectionist.
While the Indian government may prefer Bush (so does Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf) more Indian Americans, especially Muslims, are for Kerry while Pakistani Americans, who have borne the brunt of post-9/11 excesses and suffered midnight raids, are overwhelmingly plumping for Kerry. "It's McCarthyism the way Muslims are being singled out," says Mahinder Tak, a prominent Indian fundraiser. She talks of her Muslim friends and the indignities they suffer daily. Writer Suketu Mehta points out that President Bush's policies have led to an alarming rise in anti-Americanism around the world. "I live here and my kids are growing up here. I want America to be loved again, not feared and hated," Mehta says. Novelist Amitav Ghosh, equally appalled at the hysteria around Bush, says the Republican strategy for winning is to create a sense of fear and then ratchet it up. "The lesson here is that democracy is partly about techniques of manipulation."
But the view from the perch of the wealthy is decidedly different. Super-rich Indian doctors and engineers lean toward Bush for one reason: lower taxes on their millions. They also display an underlying satisfaction with Bush giving the terrorists their due. An anti-Muslim, this-is-their-just-desserts sentiment is unmistakable. Zach Zachariah, a close Bush family friend and a big fundraiser, said Bush is better for India because he "does what he says and says what he does." The wealthy Kerala-born doctor has reportedly helped raise $17 million for Bush and has weekly meetings with Karl Rove, the campaign's mastermind. The swagger of the Republicans has certainly rubbed off on Zachariah. When asked about racial profiling, illegal detentions and increasing burden of healthcare costs on middle-class Indian Americans, he said: "They should just get smarter and get rich." The class divide very much operates in the community.
An important litmus test for Indian Americans is whether the US president would visit India. "The only two presidents to visit India were Democrats. When you visit a country, you show respect. Democracy for the Democrats is very important. Bush says Iraq will be a beacon of democracy. It's all hot air. I don't hear him talk of democracy when it comes to Pakistan," said Kapur with obvious delight at having scored a point. Clinton spent five days in India and only five hours in Pakistan, he noted, promising that Kerry will push Pakistan harder on the question of democracy. However, it is an open question whether Kerry will jeopardise the delicate house of cards balancing on Musharraf.
But whoever wins on November 2, the bottomline is—today India is far too important to ignore for either party."The US-India relationship has a lot of ballast to it, the logic is indisputable," says Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration. But even he indulged in politics on a recent trip to India when he denigrated the recent Indo-US agreement under the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) concluded on President Bush's watch. Another Democrat on Capitol Hill dismissed the NSSP as "smoke and mirrors", saying it will fail to deliver the big fruit of high-tech sales that India craves for because of US laws in place.
But what will the Democrats deliver? According to Stephen Cohen, a veteran observer of Indo-US dances, they might 'draw the line' at some of the weapons systems that India wants and Bush supports such as anti-missile technology. "My guess is that India will indeed find it more difficult to get high technology from the US under Kerry. However, this may depend on personalities," he noted. Some of Kerry's advisors are old India hands such Karl Inderfurth, who heads the South Asia cell. Kerry has tried to shed the hardcore arms controlwallahs who can't seem to accept India's recent nuclear-power status. Says Inderfurth, "The NSSP should not be the centrepiece of the entire relationship. We want a broad-based, multi-faceted relationship with India." No question of any rollbacks on what is in the process, he asserts. But a Kerry victory could still mean delicate adjustments, recalibrations and some outright changes in policy. Should he win, it would be a year before Kerry can focus on India given the time a typical transition and policy review takes.
Bush supporters press that the president has no such encumbrances. He came to office seeing India "as the big idea" and has steadily moved to define it with incremental gains. "The Democrats who are criticising the NSSP today as insufficient are the same people who were berating us for doing it in the first place. You got to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. We have a road map for India," says a US official edgily. But if India plays its cards right, it doesn't matter who wins, according to Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International. More important are economic reforms and efforts at regional reconciliation by India. "Both Bush and Kerry will dramatically improve relations," says Zakaria, who is a registered independent but leaning toward Kerry.