The meaning of American Elections
As I write this, nearly one million Americans have exercised their franchise through postal ballots to elect their next President, though the formal election is slated to be held on November 2. A U.S. President is supposed to be the most powerful person in the world. His or her election has implications not only for the United States but also for the rest of the world, given the fact that it is the US still is the lone superpower in the world, with China, despite all its pretensions, is far behind in terms of power index. The US is the mightiest military power in the world. It is still the most advanced in terms of economy and technical knowhow.
Who will win? Will incumbent Republican President Donald Trump get a renewed term? Or will former Vice President and Democratic candidate Joe Biden become the 46th President of the US? Well, if one goes by the media reports and common perceptions, Trump will lose badly. All the recent opinion polls so far show Biden leading by a significant margin over Trump. But then, the media’s predictions of Trump’s certain defeat are about as confident this year as they were in 2016. That time, nobody gave Trump a chance and all the media or political pundits were supremely confident of Hillary Clinton’s win by a landslide.
It is true that Hillary got more popular votes than Trump in 2016. But then American Presidency is won not by popular votes but through an electoral college in which the most populous states such as California, New York and Chicago cannot dictate the overall composition, which, in turn, is dependent upon the “winner takes all” principle (suppose a state elects 50 representatives to elect the President and if a candidate gets 26 votes then he takes all the 50). Similarly, going by surveys, Biden will win the popular vote, but nobody is sure of his position in the Electoral College of 537 representatives. In 2016, Trump won by winning battleground states that few expected him to win. Right now, he’s polling slightly and relatively better in those states than he did four years ago if analysis in the website of “Real Clear Politics” is any indication. So one sees that Biden is averaging a 7-point lead in Pennsylvania, but Clinton was averaging a nearly identical lead there four years ago – before Trump won it narrowly on Election Day. Likewise, Biden’s Florida lead is very similar to Clinton’s lead four years ago. Trump won Florida. Biden is not performing as well in Wisconsin as Clinton did four years ago. Trump won that state. Biden is doing less well in Michigan, according to the polls, than Clinton did four years ago. Trump won Michigan. Biden is doing a bit better than what Clinton did in North Carolina, but Trump won that state by a 4-point margin.
As the aforementioned analysis says, “Trump will need to do in 2020 what he did in 2016 – campaign hard in these battleground states and win them. But the numbers show he’s polling slightly better in these battleground states right now than he was at this time in 2016. He’s on track – in the media’s own polls – to do well in the Electoral College. The media likes to use polls to set very powerful narratives during a campaign. The narrative is frequently that the race is not winnable for the Republican. The polls get more reasonable closer to Election Day, regardless of who wins, and the false narrative gets forgotten. Throughout 2016, the narrative put forth day in and day out by the media was that Donald Trump simply couldn’t win. Sure, the final polls weren’t off as dramatically as that narrative was, but the narrative is pushed at least in part because it advances the political agenda of the media. The wish frequently becomes reality. The media have pushed the same narrative this time as well, if a bit more angrily. Four years ago, pundits said the race was over because of how Trump was polling. According to those same polls in the same key battleground states, he’s doing a bit better than he was doing four years ago.”
In fact, Trump’s victory in 2016 against all odds was similar in many ways to Narendra Modi’s victory in India in 2014. In fact, their victories posed many questions for the credibility of the media in both the countries, throwing the important lesson that the media should observe, report and analyse the polls as dispassionately as possible, and not become an active player in the polls by furthering the causes of a particular candidate (or party) – by demonising his or her rival. For the mainstream American media, Trump’s major drawback was the fact that he was never a part of the ‘New York-Washington establishment’; he was a complete outsider having no political, electoral or intellectual experience. The ‘New York-Washington establishment’ comprised seasoned Democrats as well as Republicans, media, think-tanks, bureaucrats and academic elites; much like our “Delhi establishment” that includes many veteran Congress as well as BJP leaders. For the American media, Trump was a highly “divisive figure” based on his views on immigrants, Muslims and Women. And here, Trump’s ‘disqualification’ was compounded by the fact that he was opposed by the top leadership in his own Republican party Here in India, we had witnessed an exactly similar trend in 2014. No other prime ministerial candidate in India had ever been subjected to such rigorous public and judicial scrutiny as Modi, for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots in 2002. Modi’s critics within the party, let alone his enemies outside, systematically fed the overwhelming sections of the national media to propagate the theory that Modi was a deeply divisive figure and that he would be a political disaster for the BJP outside Gujarat.
Be that as it may, for Indians, the American Presidential elections this year have evoked special interests because should Biden become President, the United States would have its first female vice president, its first Black vice president and its first Indian American vice president all at once. Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a Democratic senator from California, is the daughter of immigrants – her Indian mother and Jamaican father met while university students in California. A lot of Indian-Americans, nearly 65 percent of the one million-strong community, are believed to be voting for Kamala and hence the democrats this time. Of course, majority of the Indian-Americans do vote for the democrats always, but Republicans under Trump have been trying to find more support from the Indian Americans because of his well-known rapport with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But it seems that trump’s strategy is not working; the latest survey says that though the majority of Indian Americans are supporters of Modi, they will vote for the Biden-Harris team, the Vice-Presidential candidate’s Indian origin being one of the important reasons.
Indeed, it will become history if Kamala wins under Biden’s leadership. Indians will be naturally happy, but then the truth is that in her myriad interviews over recent years, Kamala has highlighted more her African (Black) origin. May be because of her political compulsions, it makes sense for her to be considered a Black as this community outnumbers the Indian-Americans.
Secondly, all told, unlike in the United Kingdom (UK), Indian-Diaspora in the United States has not done all that well politically. In the UK, Indian-origin citizens are also 1.5 million strong, constituting over 2.5 percent of the country’s population. But, politically, they have been very active in both the mainstream Conservative and Labour parties. The British Parliament has, in recent years, always had a number of Indian members. But in the present Conservative-regime of Boris Johnson, three of the Indians have occupied high cabinet positions. Rishi Sunak, the son in law of Infosys co-founder Ramarao Narayana Murthy, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) of the United Kingdom, usually the most important cabinet position after the prime Minister. Alok Sharma is the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy. He was the Prime Minister’s infrastructure envoy to India in the year 2016. And the crucial post of Home Secretary is occupied by Priti Patel, who in the previous regime of Therasa May held the International Development Secretary portfolio but was forced to resign for a highly ill-advised freelance trip to Israel. Imagine how significant it is that the UK’s Finance, Home and Commerce/Industry Ministers are of Indian-origin.
In contrast, the only cabinet-rank post in the United States post that a person of Indian origin was given for the first time ever was by President Trump to Ms. Nikki Haley, American Ambassador to the United Nations from January 2017 through December 2018. She was, of course, the Republican Governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, the first female and Indian-American to serve in this office. Prior to this, another Indian-American had become a Governor. He was again a Republican – Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. He served as the 55th Governor of Louisiana from 2008 to 2016. Piyush Jindal previously served as a member of the US House of Representatives and Chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Thus, as far as the governance of the United States at the federal or central level is concerned, Indian-Americans have hardly occupied important positions. In that sense, Kamala’s victory will be a milestone, despite her reluctance to display her Indianness.
Why is it that despite Indian Diaspora being one of the most prosperous and educated in both the countries, its members have done better in the UK than in the US? According to a research paper, 654 UK companies are with a connection to the Indian Diaspora that have an annual turnover in excess of £100,000. Together, these companies generate an annual turnover of £36.84 billion. They pay £1.045 billion in corporation tax and invest close to £1.98 billion in the form of capital expenditure. If indirect taxes like VAT and employment tax are included, their contribution to the UK Exchequer is even greater. Similarly in the US, Indian Americans own a third of all Silicon Valley start-ups, according to Nirvikar Singh, Sanjoy Chakravorty and Devesh Kapur, authors of the book “The Other One Percent: Indians in America”. About 8% of all high-technology firms in the US were founded by Indian Americans. At present, 2% of the Fortune 500 companies of American origin – including Microsoft, Alphabet, Adobe, IBM, and MasterCard – are led by Indian American CEOs One in every seven doctors in America is of Indian descent. Over half of all motels in the US are owned by Indian Americans. In addition, the current generation of Indian Americans comprises political activists, comedians and Hollywood and TV artists. Due to the lucrative fields in which most of them were employed, the median income of an Indian American household is $90,711, arguably among the highest in the country and much higher than the Asian-American average of $67,022.
In my considered view, one of the principal reasons why Indian-Americans, unlike the British-Indians, have not reached very high in US politics is religion, which plays an important role in the US politics. Americans want their leaders to be Christians of some variety or the other. As a minority religion, Judaism has been accepted much better in American politics, compared with others such as Hinduism (including its closer Sikhism and Buddhism) and Islam. Even in the US Congress, Christians are still overrepresented when compared with the general public, according to the Pew Research Centre. “The number of non-Christian members of Congress(535) is now 63, made up of 34 Jews, three Muslims, three Hindus, two Buddhists, two Unitarian Universalists, and 19, including the Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, who declined to specify a religious affiliation”, Pew says. In fact, Pew survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say it’s important for a President to share their religious beliefs. No wonder why despite the US constitution clearly prohibiting any religious or requirement for public office, all of the country’s Presidents have been Christians (some of them have been Episcopalians or Presbyterians, with most of the rest belonging to other prominent Protestant denominations).
It may be noted that the US has been a country of “settlers”, not “immigrants”. Settlers are those who came from other parts of the world to settle down permanently in the US, and they are different from ordinary immigrants coming to seek a fortune and go back. Settlers came in groups while immigrants come individually. And when you come in a group, you come with your culture and religion. As the legendary American political scientist Samuel P Huntington had pointed out, “With immigrants the process of moving is to a much greater extent a personal process involving individuals and families, whereas with settlers there is a much more collective process of a group of people moving and saying, ‘we’re unhappy where we are for one reason or another, and we want to move elsewhere and form our own society’.”
In the later part of the 18th century, eighty percent of Americans were from the British Isles, with 60 percent English and 20 percent Scotch and Scotch-Irish, while the other 20 percent was largely German and Dutch. In the 19th century, there was the massive immigration of Irish and German Catholics, and at the end of that century large-scale. Immigration from Eastern Europe, contributed tremendously to religious and ethnic diversification and eventually eliminated these ethnic components of American identity. And this identity of being Christians and White remained intact until the 1950s, with a whole series of legislation excluding immigrants from Asia from coming to the USA. American identity has been defined in terms of the Anglo-Protestant culture, values, and institutions of the founding settlers, including individualism, liberty, the work ethic, the rule of law, private property, and hostility to concentrated power.
Of course, subsequently, the country has opened up to others. But the Americans always wanted the immigrants to adopt their culture. No wonder why Kamala is a Christian, though her mother remained a Hindu. Bobby Jindal (of Hindu parents) and Nikki (of Sikh parents) had to become Christians to succeed in American politics. It is important to realise that the US has got what is called assimilationist or ‘melting pot’ model of immigrant integration, which differs from the British model of ‘multiculturalism” that seeks to preserve groups’ racial and ethnic identities. This assimilationist or ‘absorption’ rationale of the American approach is obviously reflected in its politics and society. They, therefore, encourage the immigrants to marry outside their communities, learn and speak English. And that is precisely the reason why political scientists like Huntington or for that matter the Republican party (President Trump is a leading example) are so concerned by the Hispanic immigration (both legal and illegal) through the neighbouring Mexico.
Samuel Huntington argues that the sheer number, concentration, linguistic homogeneity, and other characteristics of Hispanic immigrants will erode the dominance of English as a nationally unifying language, weaken the country’s dominant cultural values, and promote ethnic allegiances over a primary identification as an American and the “Anglo-Protestant creed,” destroying the shared identity that “makes us Americans”. According to Huntington, it is not entirely the Mexicans’ fault; it is also the doing of liberal policies of the country. He argues that if this development is allowed to continue, it may lead to a profound breakup of the nation, or as he posits, “The possibility of a de facto split between a predominately Spanish-speaking America and English-speaking America. The threat for him is real as “No other immigrant group in American history has asserted or has been able to assert a historical claim to American territory. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans can and do make that claim… (by arguing) that the Southwest was taken from them by military aggression in the 1840s, and that the time for la reconquista has arrived. Demographically, socially, and culturally that is well under way”.
This mindset explains why “illegal” Hispanic immigration is such an emotive issue and his resolve to erect a border wall against Mexico so controversial. But that does not mean that Trump is necessarily against the entry of Indian immigrants on the cultural ground. His recent measures towards a stronger visa regime against the Indians are basically economic and limited in nature. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will discourage the immigration of highly skilled Indians into the US. In fact, all told, strong measures towards a stricter visa-regime have not stopped the increased immigration of Indian students into the United States every year; this was the trend until the advent of the Covid-19. Similarly, despite the inhibiting tariffs under President Donald Trump, goods trade between India and the US grew from about $60 billion in 2013 to over $90 billion in 2019. The military relations between the India and the United States have never been better. India conducts maximum joint military exercises with the United States. Defence and foreign ministers of the two countries are going to meet next week in what is now institutionalised “two plus two” talks. The US is no longer hesitant to supply sophisticated technologies, including arms and ammunitions, to India.
And this upswing in the bilateral ties between India and the US are not going to be adversely affected if Biden wins. Because, good relations with India do have bi-partisan support in the US. Ties have been improving since 2000 irrespective of whoever is in power in Washington and Delhi. Whether it is BJP or the Congress in Delhi or the Democrats or Republicans in Washington, India and the United States are getting more and more engaged than estranged. And this trend is further likely to grow in days ahead, with China proving to be a common challenge.