Originally Published 2015-11-12 10:23:15 Published on Nov 12, 2015
One can draw a range of parallels in the political discourse prevalent in the US and India. In this article, an attempt has been made to find parallels in the narratives that dominated the Indian general election of 2014, with the ones currently dominating the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
Similar narratives in India, US elections?

The United States and India share a range of similarities - from over throwing the British crown and adopting a democratic federal structure with a secular constitution, to boasting a diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, populace. It is no surprise then that one can draw a range of parallels in the political discourse prevalent in the two countries. In this piece, an attempt has been made to find parallels in the narratives that dominated the Indian general election of 2014, with those which are currently dominating the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

The first of such narratives is that of personalities. The Indian election in 2014 was essentially a referendum on the leaders of the two national parties - Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC) - despite India following a Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. The emphasis on personalities is expected in an American election, but 2016 provides a particularly stark contrast. On the Republican side there are around 15 people vying for the nomination including the rabble-rousing Donald Trump, libertarian Rand Paul, son of Cuban immigrants Marco Rubio, just to name a few. For the Democratic Party, the former First Lady Hillary Clinton is battling not just her record as Secretary of State, but also corruption allegations from her time in office; and the self-confessed socialist Bernie Sanders who is looking to tap into the discontent of the middle class. The American voter thus has to make a judgement call not only on the policy-framework offered by each of the candidates, but also on what each of these candidates represents.

Building on from the discourse of 'personality cults', one of the reasons given for the loss of the INC, and that of its leader Rahul Gandhi, was that that the India voter was tired of voting in a member of the same family yet again. Throughout the election campaign, the narrative that the Congress had become a dynasty, and by appointing Rahul Gandhi as its campaign leader was propagating dynastic politics, was widely used by the BJP - in fact, the Prime Minister Modi himself routinely attacked the Congress, and often referred to his own humble origins as an alternative to this culture of privilege. In the U.S. too such a strategy has become popular thanks to the high polling numbers of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Other candidates are routinely asking the American public whether they want to continue the legacy of a previous President, and whether they want to set a precedent which leads to one family dominating America's politics. It remains to be seen however if such a strategy will work for the opponents of Bush and Clinton as it did for the BJP, or will America follow the earlier Indian model where one family enjoyed enormous popularity and goodwill.

Thirdly, campaigns in both countries are looking to tap into the disenchantment amongst the electorate against 'career politicians'. It is increasingly felt that there exists a certain political elite, which resides in the country's capital, and uses this proximity to the establishment, to fulfil vested interests. To break this hegemony, both countries are witnessing the emergence of political leaders who previously had no political experience. In India, the face of this new kind of politician was Arvind Kejriwal, who leveraged the support his anti-corruption organization got, to formally establish a political party and contest elections. Rather surprisingly, and unsuccessfully, even Rahul Gandhi tried to position himself as an outsider to politics when he famously tore up an ordinance approved by a Prime Minister of his own party. In the U.S. too, a number of candidates are positioning themselves thusly - be it Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina who look to bring their experience from the corporate world, or Dr. Ben Carson who believes it is important for people from a scientific background to run for office. There are also politicians who are portraying themselves as anti-establishment figures, with Ted Cruz taking up the far right position, and Bernie Sanders the far left. There is also Rand Paul, a libertarian, trying to portray a different 'a different kind of Republican'.

Lastly, there exist divisive tendencies, particularly on the basis of religious faith but also on the basis of race or caste, in the election campaigns of the leaders in the two countries. The BJP campaign in India for instance was strongly backed by the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In fact, before Mr. Modi embarked upon the slogan 'sabka saath sabka vikaas' (development for all), posters with his picture stated 'I am a Hindu Nationalist'. In America too such statements are popular - whether it is Donald Trump targeting Mexicans, or Dr. Ben Carson stating a Muslim should not become President.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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