Comment: US presidential election, it's so much like an Indian election, isn't it!

By: Sandeep Shastri
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The presence of 24x7 media has made dramatic developments in democratic politics in any corner of the world a matter of keen interest everywhere. Especially so as the American Presidential election campaign reaches a feverish crescendo. Curiously, though, the more we project each country as distinct and different, the more we realize how similar democratic and electoral processes are the world over. If you watched the two debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and followed the cut and thrust of their campaigns, you would have realized that today, across the world, candidates for 'high office' seem to run their electoral campaigns in predictably similar ways.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

In 'new' democracies of the developing world, it was often argued that 'who you are' mattered more than 'what you believed in' when it came to deciding who you voted for. The US Presidential election is now showing that that's as true of voters in the developed world, too. Thus, Donald Trump's supporters are 'middle-class white males who have not had access to college education' and/or 'middle-class rural white males' or 'middle-class families that have suffered economic stagnation; Hillary's supporters are African Americans, Latinos, Women and the economically less-privileged, etc. Support for either candidate is being calculated in terms of the different social and economic groups that are likely to be swayed by the shrill rhetoric of either of the candidates.

Politician (and politics)-bashing has also become fashionable not merely in the developing world but in the US, too. Donald Trump himself has gone to town lambasting the 'conventional' and 'professional politician' and the establishment. He has consistently attacked his opponent (and what she represents) as being a symbol of the 'entrenched political class. In the recent television debate, Trump did not bat an eyelid as he said that as a politician -- but he did hasten to add that he was surprised he was describing himself in those words! The anti-politics, anti-politician rhetoric is something we are only too familiar with in India. The Aam Admi Party claimed that they would usher in alternative politics. Today, as one witnesses their politics, one realizes that it is not alternative politics but an alternative within mainstream politics that they are offering the voters of the country.

The cut and thrust of the presidential debate in the US may leave many voters there shell-shocked (as is clear in the hours of discussions in the electronic media, long commentaries in the print media and what's trending on social media) but this is a clear reflection of the hollowness and shallowness of the choices being offered. If one candidate threatens to send the other to jail if elected (Trump did not merely say that in the TV debate but has repeated it in his campaign) and says he would direct his administration to take action in this regard it is clearly reflective of the disruption of what has been considered accepted norms of democratic governance and electoral politics, which many other democracies are accustomed to more as campaign rhetoric, with precious little happening once elections are over. The ethical issues that have erupted in the election campaign - be it the infamous Trump video that is a decade old, Trump's non-disclosure of his Income Tax returns, Hilary Clinton's email controversy or the focus on Bill Clinton's escapades, have seen personal attacks at a level never seen earlier in US presidential campaigns. Does it represent a paucity of real issues in America or is it the preferred style of whipping up emotional sentiments? While both candidates say they would like to focus on policies, projections and programmes, more often than not what we have seen and heard are patently personal attacks on each other.

The double-speak of politicians who would rather forget what they said or did a decade ago is clearly evident in the American presidential elections. Trump has his past coming back at him in new ways every day. As part of his campaign he talks of the days that he and Bill Clinton played golf together and what transpired during those conversations; Hilary Clinton quotes Michelle Obama's speech at the recent Democratic Party convention but Trump wants to remind his opponent of what the First Lady said when Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton were locked in a bitter tussle to secure the Democratic Party nomination eight years ago, and so on. While both candidates would like to bury memories of events past, the price one pays when contesting for high office is that the past may verily become an open book. Politicians in India have been quite used to this phenomenon and are frequently found scurrying for cover to justify a past action or statement that is inconvenient today. US presidential election, it's so much like an Indian election, isn't it!

(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a keen student of electoral politics and is Pro Vice Chancellor, Jain University, Bengaluru)

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