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The Manchurian Candidate: The US election as theatre

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Last updated on: October 21, 2004 11:56 IST

Watching the 2004 US presidential debates was an interesting experience: I watched the first completely and with full attention; the second I watched on and off, so I have a more impressionistic view of that one; I was traveling at the time of the third, so I have had to rely on reports in the media. The debate, of course, is a pure spectator sport, and its impact on the outcome is debatable.

On the day of the third debate, I was on a long flight and happened to see the newly released Denzel Washington starrer The Manchurian Candidate. The earlier version from 1962 starring Frank Sinatra was a classic, with its story of a candidate brainwashed by the Red Chinese/Soviets, the object of American paranoia at the time of the Korean War. The 2004 version has updated the villain to be global fund Manchurian Holdings, but the story-line is still powerful: the attempted takeover of the US presidency.

Surely the release of the film was timed for this election, and therefore it does amount to propaganda; but it does give one the chills, given that one could legitimately wonder if George W Bush were indeed a bit of a hypnotized façade for certain oil and religious fundamentalist vested interests. A recent New York Times report ('Identity Badge Worn Under Skin Approved for Use in Health Care,' October 16, 2004) shows that the technology for actual electronic implants in the body -- the candidate Shaw has one in his brain -- is close at hand.

Exclusive: The George W Bush interview

What was quite notable in the background of the 2004 version was the constant CNN-style television chatter about American military intervention in a variety of countries, although I think they carefully refrained from mentioning Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or China. I couldn't tell because the audio on the flight was unclear, but this is par for the course. Intervention in the wrong countries for the wrong reasons is the name of the game.

Going back to the debates, in the first one, John Kerry knocked out George Dubya Bush. In the second debate, especially in the second half, Bush made a pretty good comeback, but an impartial observer would still have to award it to Kerry on points. The third seems to have been a draw. Kerry was full of facts and figures, articulate, and simply more presidential. Bush was struggling to keep pace, especially in the first debate, and looked like he didn't quite comprehend what was going on.

Exclusive: The John Kerry interview

In a way, Bush was attempting to do a Ronald Reagan with his easy, relaxed manner and genial 'There you go again.' Alas, poor Dubya managed to do a Dan Quayle instead: the old deer-in-the-headlights look, at least in the first debate.

Of course, it is not clear what the debates have to do with the eventual election results, but Kerry, who had been looking very much an underdog, more or less pulled level in the polls, so I suppose he could claim he 'won' the debate. I have watched a few debates in the past, and have seen photographs of the famous Kennedy vs Nixon debates; and to me, this is entertainment on a large scale.

My belief is that the US electorate has mostly made up its mind already, based on long-held views and prejudices. For instance, I suspect much of the US South is going Republican, whereas the Northeast and California will likely go the Democratic way. There are a number of swing states and a large number of undecided voters, and they hold the key.

As a firm believer in journalism by driving around, I made some casual observations that lead to my conjectures above. In Louisiana the bumper stickers sported by Bubba (or is it Boudreaux?) tell their own tales. A large number of cars -- perhaps even a majority -- seem to have a yellow ribbon ('Bring the troops home') or an American flag ribbon. But in the San Francisco Bay Area) there is hardly a ribbon in view. The troglodytes of Orange County surely feel different, so California may still be a toss-up.

A lot of the Indian Americans I spoke with seemed to genuinely dislike Bush, and although they were not enthusiastic about Kerry, they seemed to prefer him. This I attribute to two things, first, the fear that under Bush, the US is embroiled in an unwinnable war, the draft will return, and their young sons (and possibly daughters) will get pressed into service in an unending conflict; second, the traditional (and erroneous) notion that 'Democratic administrations are good for India.'

The issue of the draft is obviously a visceral one. I talked to several young men of Indian-American origin, and their opinions vary. One youngster spoke of how he objected to the war on principle, as a conscientious objector, but he felt the obligation to protect his country; I suppose one could say he felt it was his dharma. He said he would go to war. His parents were not at all happy to hear this.

Another young man said he too was a conscientious objector, and he seemed more open to the idea that he might leave the country to avoid the draft. A young woman told me that she thought women would not be drafted into combat roles. I am not entirely sure of the rules.

It is not entirely clear to me, though, what Kerry will be able to do. The US has a tar baby on its hands, and it may well be that Kerry would also be forced to bring back the draft despite all his fine talk of involving the UN and getting more allies to bear more of the personnel burden. Nobody wants to get involved in America's nasty little war.

The notion about India and Democrats goes back at least as far as the Kennedy administration. The conventional wisdom is that John Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru got on famously, and there is the famous photo of the two walking in the gardens around Nehru's home when Kennedy visited India: mentor and acolyte, it suggests. But the fact of the matter is that the two despised each other for reasons I will not go into here.

The semi-imperial visit of the photogenic Jackie Kennedy also made for good theatre. (I remember the Span magazine photos of Jackie in a white dress, along with her sister, riding an elephant). But all this did nothing substantial for Indo-US relations The US State Department from John Foster Dulles' time has taken a dim view of India. To some extent I think it was deservedly so, because of knee-jerk Nehruvian Stalinist attempts to tweak the 'imperialistic' Americans' nose all the time under the rubric of that absurdity, the Non-Aligned Movement.

Much later, the irrepressible Bill Clinton, showman extraordinaire, made a well-publicised visit to India, and once again Indians were seduced by the Democratic image-making machine. In point of fact, for six years out of his eight, Clinton's team had been horrible to India: you might remember the loathsome Robin Raphel and her constant hate speech directed at India. But somehow people in India have a rosy view of Clinton.

In between, of course, was the much-publicised spat between Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon, who genuinely detested each other, and Henry Kissinger's clever idea of sending the Seventh Fleet steaming into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India during the Bangladesh war in 1971. Old Henry K did not want India to dismember Pakistan. In hindsight, he was right: Bangladesh is today so full of Pakistani jihadis that the two might as well have remained one country. They certainly speak in one voice about their hatred for India.

There is no institutional tendency built into either Republicans or Democrats to support India. The entire approach to India is based on short-term, tactical considerations such as the Kissinger/Nixon duo's need to use Pakistan as a conduit to China, and thus their need to support Pakistan against India. There is also, of course, a long-term, strategic issue: the Cold Warriors of Foggy Bottom look upon India as another Soviet Union which they would like to break up into a number of smaller and more manageable States. But generally the short-term considerations win out.

For instance, a recent speech by Condoleezza Rice suggested that the Bushies have an excellent relationship with India and a tremendous one with Pakistan, that is, India-Pakistan-equal-equal, as usual. She didn't talk about America's excellent relationship with China and tremendous relationship with Taiwan, of course. The one other thing she mentioned -- a case of truth by repeated assertion -- is that economic growth in China and India is real. But that is always followed by the implication that commodity prices, eg. that of oil, have shot up because of demand from them, although it is really China's voracious appetite that is causing a problem. Yet another stick to beat poor India with.

The real problem with the mythology of 'Democrat = friend of India' is that it leads some people to unthinkingly vote for Kerry. In fact, there at least two areas in which Kerry is demonstrably opposed to Indian's interests. First, he is a nuclear non-proliferation ayatollah. If he wins, he is certain to hector India about cap and rollback and all that. Second, he has clearly gone on the record as being against the outsourcing of jobs to India.

The nuclear issue is complicated. I gave a talk at the University of California, Berkeley, and someone asked me whether India needed nuclear weapons. My counter was to ask him whether America needed nuclear weapons. He further suggested that the US wanted to ensure that the weapons 'did not fall into the hands of irresponsible people'. I pointed out that it is possible to suggest that the 'irresponsible people' include the Americans, because so far they are the only ones to have used nuclear weapons in anger. But with a Kerry administration, we will be going down this tiresome path: déjà vu, all over again.

I remember Bush saying 'No draft.' Another time, Kerry said, 'No new taxes.' I was reminded of George Bush Sr saying 'Read my lips: no new taxes,' and I was thinking to myself, 'Famous last words.'

But the plot thickens. Kerry, perhaps like Gore before him, is able to articulate his ideas better, although may be the average American is not into ideas or articulation: sound bites are better for them. Perhaps the average vote really can relate better to Bush's emphatic ideas about God and country. It may yet be a cliffhanger: it is a dead heat, with the momentum (the famous Big Mo') favoring Kerry. But incumbency has its advantages. The October surprise is yet to arrive.

Is a repeat of 2000 likely, with its allegations of a stolen election? In India, there is a school of thought that the May 2004 elections were fraudulent (there is dark talk about the Electronic Voting Machines being pre-programmed to favor certain parties, and it is quite interesting to note that an Indian-American Marxist had prepared a Public Interest Legislation to approach the Indian Supreme Court claiming fraud. As soon as the Congress won, he dropped his PIL!)

I hope Bush-Cheney vs Kerry-Edwards will be a clean election; and although I'd prefer to say "let the best man win" it's probably more realistic to say "let the best propaganda and election machine win."

See also

US policy towards India is war by other means


Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, passed away recently. He deserves to be blamed for one of the more remarkable, and destructive, ideas of recent times: that there is no such thing as objective truth, and that everything is based on context or on frames of reference. This post-modern poppycock may have caused the nihilism in the Indian English-language media (in addition to large amounts of money, of course), which believes that it is their duty to manufacture 'reality' based on their biases and prejudices.

The South Asian Bleeding Hearts Association publishes an antidote to the fictions perpetuated by the media under the auspices of a coalition of anti-national vested interests. The 4M report is a wickedly humorous look at what passes for 'news' for lack of a better word.

See for more information.

Comments welcome at Responses to reader email at the blog

Rajeev Srinivasan