The US presidential elections are scheduled for next week Tuesday, Nov 6th. A lot hangs on the outcome for the US — and perhaps the world. In a piece that I wrote a few days ago for NitiCentral.com, I argue that its importance for India is overblown since what happens in the US does not materially affect India’s fortunes. For the record, here it is below the fold. If you wish to comment, please do so on NitiCentral.
The US Elections Are a Spectacular Sideshow
The US presidential elections are just around the corner, scheduled as all US elections are for the Tuesday following the first Monday of November which happens to be the 6th of November this year. If like me you take your civic responsibility of voting in public elections seriously, the predictability of the date is helpful. Since it is set by US federal law (dating back to the 1840s), the date is not subject to bureaucratic or political whim. This is yet one more example of rule of law and not rule by people. I like it.
Since it concerns them the most, Americans naturally pay more attention to the presidential elections than to other elections, domestic or international. In fact, the presidential elections have to be the most closely followed elections in the world. Indian media also focuses keenly on the process and the outcome. Why it does so is a bit of a mystery to me. Let me explain.
A couple of admissions. First, I am not into spectator sports. Not to put too fine a point on it, actually I am not into any sports, spectator or otherwise. Therefore I find people’s fascination with sports, such as football in the US and cricket in India, totally mystifying. Second admission, I am not into electoral politics. By that I don’t mean that politics — the practise or activities associated with the governance of a country — does not matter to me. Politics matters immensely but it is a mistake to pay too much attention to the elections because it detracts from the real matter of how governance should be done.
But isn’t the US presidential elections special and important? Isn’t it the president the one who sets the agenda for the US? Well, sort of. But remember that the president is not the monarch. Thanks to the founding fathers of the country, the US constitution ensures that the president’s powers (executive) are checked by the other two branches of the government — the Congress (legislature) and the Supreme Court (judiciary.) The president can only do what he is allowed to do, and that is whatever the general consensus is. US presidents are the most powerful figureheads in the world but in the end, that’s all that they are: figureheads. The primary requirements appear to be that they should be able to talk a good talk. And look reasonably presentable on TV.
But does it not matter for US domestic policies whether it is a Democratic or a Republican president? No, actually not. The differences are trivial compared to the common agenda. Sure the Republicans are fiscally and socially conservative while the Democrats are liberal (read “tax and spend”). But those are superficial differences not much thicker than the red and blue paint they use to color Republicans and Democrats. If they were not painted differently, I would have had a hard time distinguishing between them. Yes, they do compete against each other but then Tweedledum and Tweedledee too agreed to have a battle.
In any case, US policy is fairly constrained by its constitution, its history, its permanent interests at home and abroad, the aggregate mood of its citizens, by corporate interests, and a whole bunch of other factors to the extent that it really does not matter whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the White House. Did anything of any significance change post the last elections in 2008? You could have fooled me. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
To me, the US presidential elections is a fake battle in which everyone wins. Which, you may say, explains the Indian media’s fascination with it. The Indian media generally focuses on the trivial, the tawdry and the loathsome — cricket, Bollywood and politicians — to distract the attention of the gullible Indian public. Fake TV journalists and reporters faking it and reporting on big fakers. I will desist from naming the biggest fake of them all since it is polite to not state the obvious. So let’s just move on.
But doesn’t the outcome of the US elections affect India through their foreign policy? No, not really. It is true that Democrats and Republicans relate to India differently. Republican presidents are more likely to be friendly to India than the Democratic ones. This is somewhat puzzling since Indians and people of Indian descent in the US generally support Democrats over Republicans.
Be that as it may, the fact is that in the greater scheme of things as the Americans see it, India does not matter a whole lot. And quite understandably so. India just does not attract American attention. India does not have mineral resources, unlike say Iraq. India does not engage in global jihad, unlike say Pakistan. If India were to magically disappear off the face of the earth, I doubt that the Americans would notice or greatly mind.
Indians do care about the US — at least those who follow the English language main stream media. The more crass simply ape the worst bits of American culture. But India does not impinge on the American consciousness except occasionally such as when they reach an Indian call center or when some sensational piece of news is reported about India. Caste, curry and call centers just about sums it all up.
But surely, you may ask, doesn’t what the US does have an impact on the Indian economy? The answer is precisely no. The Indian economy is quite isolated from the US as also the rest of the world, thanks to the autarkic regime imposed by Nehruvian socialism, which partly explains India’s debilitating poverty. Here are some numbers. Bilateral trade (imports and exports) of goods and services between US and India was $86 billion (all figures for 2011.) Compare that to China’s $540 billion bilateral trade with the US.
China matters to the US much more than India does, and with good reason. China’s trade surplus with the US was $282 billion in 2011 alone — and that’s been going on for a while. Consequently, China holds around $1.1 trillion in US Treasury bonds, as does Japan. India’s trade with the US does not really count, not to the Americans and neither to Indians. Remember India is a large country with over 1.2 billion people. That means, per capita the US-India bilateral trade in 2011 was a measly $70. Compare that to Canada: total trade was $261 billion, and per capita was a whopping $20,000.
You may say that Canada should not count since it is US’s neighbor. Alright, then consider an even smaller country half-way across the world from the US: Singapore. The volume of bilateral trade with Singapore was $12,750 per capita. Each Singaporean both and sold around $12,750 worth of goods and services with the Americans. Let me repeat the comparable number for India: $70.
What that means is that economies of countries likes China, Canada and even distant Singapore have a relationship with the US economy. If the US sneezes, these other countries could catch a cold. They share in the prosperity of the US also. Or in the case of China, the US is in a deadly embrace with it. The bottom line is that what happens in the US has scant effect on India — and conversely what happens in India does not bother the Americans.
Anyway, as I was telling you, I don’t care for the US presidential elections. But the Indian media appears to care. I think it is mostly because they are ignorant. They don’t know that what happens in the US does not materially affect India’s fortunes. India is a large, isolated economy. And any large economy prospers or fails entirely on its own performance based on its domestic economic policies.
Aside from the ignorance, the media’s focus on the US election reflects the basic taste for circus that people generally have. Shakespeare’s take on life is an apt description of the spectacular political sideshow election generally are: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. They really don’t matter in the sense that nothing of any significance changes regardless of the outcome.