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The Mother Of All Elections - Thru An Indian Lens

Raj Melville

I felt surreal being in India watching the US elections unfold 10,000 miles away. As some one who harangued his friends and family into voting, it felt odd not to be going down to the local school to cast my ballot. I had decided to take a much deferred trip to India to visit family and November was the only time that made sense.

Being away from the good old US of A did not mean you could get away from the US Elections. It seemed like every where I went in India, as soon as people found out I was from the US, the topic of the upcoming elections or the unfolding financial disaster would come up. Everyone had an opinion from my car driver to distant cousins.

On my second day in Bombay (I still haven’t got used to Mumbai), while battling traffic into the city, my driver asked me, “Saab, wuh Obama Muslim hai kya?  (Sir, is that Obama a Muslim?)”. I took great pains to explain to him that while Barack Obama had a Muslim middle name; it was from his paternal grandfather who was a Muslim in Kenya. He is a Christian I said. But will he be good for India my driver persisted, paying very little attention to my detailed explanation. Won’t he side with the Pakistanis?  Well we will need to wait and see how things unfold I said trying very hard to be non-committal.

Later as I sipped some chai with a couple of old classmates they could not resist the election question. “What do you think McCain’s chances are for this November?” asked one of them. Trying hard not to say “Like a snowball’s chance in you know where”, I tried to give an evenhanded assessment and said, “Well Obama seems to be ahead in the polls, but you never know. A lot can happen between now and Election Day. That’s the only poll that counts.”

“But really what is going to happen if Obama becomes president? What about outsourcing? It is going to affect all our IT companies,” they insisted. I tried to explain that election rhetoric gets tempered once reality sets in. “I think Obama is a very practical person”, I said “He will soon see both sides of the story if he is elected”. They did not seem convinced.

A few days later I hopped on a plane to Bangalore (Bengaluru to the purists) and paid a visit to an old family friend. A retired banker, his first question as expected was about the ongoing financial meltdown. His next question was about what either candidate would do to help avert financial Armageddon.

As I sit down to a meal of idlis and sambhaar, my cousin peppers me with questions about the US. “So are people walking around the streets looking for jobs because of this meltdown?” he says. Things haven’t got that bad yet I try to reassure him. I think you are thinking of the Depression in the 30’s, I say. “What about this Obama fellow? I don’t think the Democrats are good for India. Look Clinton just came to India and talked, Bush delivered and so will McCain.” He has a point, I concede, but you need to take a larger world view, I try to say, as he slurps the last of the sambhaar.

I made sure to fly back to Bombay in time to watch the Elections on TV. “Aren’t you missing out on voting?” asks my dad. I explain the absentee ballot system we have in place and how I was perhaps one of the first to cast my vote in America before I left. I try to describe how millions have already voted before Election Day.  A friend drops by and inevitably the election comes up. “You guys in US have to take a lesson from India on how to vote. Here everything is electronic. We should send you our technology so you are not counting punch cards this time”, he says. I tell him we are also electronic, just 50 different varieties of voting systems instead of one. He doesn’t seem to believe me. “Now we have our results five minutes after the polls close. No waiting for people to count”, he continues.

I was up at 6.30 on the 5th (8 pm on the 4th East Coast time) to catch the returns on CNN. There was the familiar face of Wolf Blitzer and John with his Magic Map. What surprised me more was that most of the English news channels had switched to non-stop coverage of the US Elections with direct feeds from CBS, MSNBC and others. Surfing thru the channels, I felt right at home bopping from Wolf to Bob Sheiffer and Katie Couric. The only channel missing was FOX NEWS and I would have loved to hear them rationalizing the Republican loss.  

It seemed like the only local English language news channel with their own news feed and analysis was Headline News. A bold backdrop labeled it the “Mother of All Elections”. It was interesting watching a panel of Indian talking heads - with the Republican expert displaying a McCain doll on his desk – explain the intricacies of the Electoral College and spout their expert views on the US elections. It was funny to observe Nancy Pelosi being interviewed by a persistent Indian reporter and to see her gingerly try to extricate herself as ardent Democratic supporter Sant Singh Chatwal tried to kiss her on both cheeks to celebrate Obama’s victory.

In general, local language channels seemed to call the election for Obama way before any of the western feeds had made their assessments. Headline News gave Obama a 187 electoral votes when CNN had him pegged at 102. Both BBC and IBN had their version of the Magic Map though not as flashy as CNN’s. Between electoral updates, the news cameras panned to USIS centers where ‘Election parties’ allowed locals to watch the results on big screen TVs and cast their ‘votes’ at a ‘voting booth’.

They say people always remember where they were on momentous occasions. The moon landing, JFK’s assassination - these moments are indelibly etched in people’s minds. To me watching the election unfold in India, the largest democracy – to see Jesse Jackson weeping in the crowds, to hear an emotional Andrew Young speak of the hopes of the past being finally realized – will be my permanent memory of this historic election.

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Figure 1 Obama - victory speech

Figure 2 Indian Talking heads

Figure 3 McCain Concedes

Figure 4 The Magic Map - Indian style

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