What is the difference between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress (I)?
Yes, the immediate response will be the usual hackneyed answers on 'communalism' and 'secularism.' But what do these cliches actually mean in practical terms? And once you look beyond them what are the issues that separate the Treasury benches from those occupied by the Opposition? Are there any differences in, say, tax reform? Can anyone tell me how the policy of economic liberalisation espoused by one differs from the other's view?
That is the first major lesson an Indian observer learns after watching the American election up close: ideology matters.
George Bush and John Kerry offered profoundly different views on a wide range of domestic issues. Abortion, gay rights, health insurance, stem-cell research -- all these and many others served to draw a clear picture of where both men stood.
An American voter who opted for one or the other certainly did not stand in a long queue with the thought, 'What difference does it make, sab chor hai!' (It is a sentiment that was repeatedly expressed in South Delhi -- a constituency that is notorious for low turnout in elections.)
The second lesson is this: in practical terms, it makes little difference to India whether it is Bush or Kerry who wins the election. That may seem a little surprising given that the two major issues on every voter's list were Iraq and terrorism.
I list them as two discrete matters since the Democrats tried their best to drive a wedge between the two, some going so far as to say that the conflict in Iraq had distracted the United States from waging the war on terrorism more effectively. Nevertheless, even John Kerry admitted that the United States had no choice but to pursue the war in Iraq since it had entered that nation. (As Secretary of State Colin Powell supposedly said, 'We break it, it is ours!')
So, what is the lesson in this?
Just this, that American policy has a momentum of its own irrespective of whether it is a Republican or a Democrat sitting in the White House. That, of course, is because it is a policy, meaning a set of decisions taken after an analysis of American national interests. There is little of the nonsense about 'body language,' of the overemphasis on personalities 'hitting it off,' and no sentimental mishmash about the United Nations, or the Non-Aligned Movement, or (my pet peeve) about brotherhood for our blessed neighbours.
When will the influence-makers and the decision-makers in India learn to be half as sensible?
I cannot help wondering why it is that all those people who spout reams of nonsense about 'our shared culture' with Pakistan have ever demonstrated any fraternal spirit with Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu speakers? (Or, for that matter, with those people who speak Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, or Assamese!)
But let us return to India, and how the American election could affect it. The truth is that there won't be any tilt against India or for us no matter who wins.
The Americans want a couple of things from Pakistan -- the freedom to use its territory and military facilities in Afghanistan, and a guarantee that its nuclear weapons won't be marketed around the world. General Musharraf can do pretty much what he pleases domestically.
At the same time, the United States is also looking ahead to the day when China becomes an open competitor -- at which point India could be the only strategic counterweight.
The United States thus needs to keep a balance between keeping Musharraf -- or someone sufficiently like him -- in power in Islamabad while simultaneously deepening economic, political, and military ties with India. But isn't that precisely what has been happening since 1998?
The basic contours of American policy in South Asia will remain familiar irrespective of whether John Kerry gets into the Oval Office. (That seems unlikely as I write but you never know!) Yes, things might have been different had Osama bin Laden not staged the dramatic events of September 11, 2001. Pakistan had been placed in the doghouse by the Clinton administration following the double whammy of the Siachen misadventure and the subsequent military coup, and the Bush presidency did not change that policy until the World Trade Center towers came tumbling down. However, there is no point in idle speculation about what could have been had Al Qaeda not entered the picture.
And there is one final lesson to be drawn from watching the US polls: may I tip my hat to our own Election Commission and the fathers of our Constitution for ensuring a system that declares results with such despatch. Here, finally, is one area where the world's largest democracy is streets ahead of the planet's second-largest democracy!