By Tarini K.
Today was an important day for the United States of America and the world at large. President Barack Obama remained in office after a hard-fought battle against Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The US Presidential Election has been in world news for many months now. In India, the news has focused more on domestic politics, a strategy that makes a lot of sense. Still, the attention on the US elections, particularly from the youth, has drawn comment. Why, people wonder, does anyone care? Ultimately, India is not particularly high on the US foreign policy agenda. There are a lot of people who passionately support Obama, who with bated breath, spent Wednesday morning glued to live coverage, waiting for the official announcement of Obama’s presidency.
Given the watch parties, the interest, the hope for change that seems to have travelled across the world, there is one lament that rings out; “If people cared as much about Indian elections, politics in India would be different.” This complaint is problematic. At the most obvious level, it is an oversimplification. Political events which generate the massive world attention that the US election did are bound to have people interested whether they are American or not. However, the interest in the US elections expresses a deeper sentiment amongst Indian youth (and some more mature citizens, too). There is a profound desire for hope, and, more importantly, for inspiration.
There are, naturally, practical reasons to pay attention to an election like this one, much in the way that there is merit to paying attention to China’s upcoming change in leadership. Why, then, are we more glued to the US election? The fundamental issue at stake is choice. The democratic process in the US, flawed though it may be, provides us with a concrete and ever-so-visual (thank you, CNN) example of a people making a choice. Even in the case of a hotly contested election such as today’s, a choice was made. That choice, the choice for more evenly distributed opportunity, a woman’s right to her own body, a move toward a more inclusive society, one in which healthcare is not a luxury but a right — was broadcast to the world. Now, the question remains, why are we captivated?
It is fair to say that Indian politics leave something to be desired, and after experiencing both 2008 — the heady euphoria of history in the making, and 2012 — the reaffirmation of faith in a man’s ability to lead, that lack is inspiration. Today, we saw a country put themselves behind a President who many have criticized. A lot of their criticisms were fair, whether they were regarding his ability to deal with the economy, his not standing up to opposition, or his foreign policy. As we in India inch toward elections in 2014, what are our options? More accurately, who do we look to in the hopes of reform?
Surely a well-spoken statesman from any party could generate the type of interest we’re seeing for and in the rest of the world? We are, as a people, mesmerized by the possibility of change, of decisive action. There are those in Delhi who would argue that the Obama administration is the wrong one for India, that Romney’s policies would bring more money into the country — and this might even be true. However, President Obama’s backing of India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and his hardened stance on both Pakistan and Israel could be more than enough advantage in the foreign policy field. Ultimately, in watching the elections, here is what we are forced to think about;
India is the world’s largest democracy. It is also perhaps the most unruly experiment in democracy in the world. The sheer diversity of our people is staggering on every front. After uniting to gain independence, we have spiraled into a state of what some call “functioning anarchy.” Whether this is a factor of the flaws of a multi-party system or not is up for debate, but the fact remains that unity has been scarce.
After fighting for autonomy from the British, the United States of America formalized their union and created an enfranchised population. Civil rights were denied to the Black population, and the very country in which that was the case rose to the occasion and elected a Black President. Twice.
Why is it relevant now? Because it is inspiring.
There were two Republican candidates for the Senate, Akin and Mourdock, who both made statements on the topic of rape (in connection with the issue of abortion) that were both blatantly false and offensive. Today, we witnessed the consequence; neither of them was elected into their Senatorial positions. In both their states, there was a long history of voting for Republican candidates. What they were shown is that regardless of their connection to a regionally favoured party, they would still be held accountable for their statements. These men were affected where it matters – in their bid for power. They were shown unequivocally that they were wrong, and that as a result, they would have no say in the functioning of the country.
That is inspiring.
At home, we have been forced to hear male and female rape apologists. We’ve heard every excuse there is from politicians faced with a rising number of (reported) rape cases and increasingly dangerous environments for women. The police force has been absent — more of a hindrance than a help. What have we been told – that Chow Mein must have something to do with it, or that when men and women interact freely, rape is a reality that we must learn to expect? Rape victims are ostracized by society and their families, they are not protected by their own government, and statements like the ones that have been printed and reprinted and aired on the news are a further violation for the victims, and of women everywhere. What little agency and consent they are afforded is stripped away again, this time by institutions supposedly built for them to rely on. For a roundup of these horrifying statements, check out our last blog post , or this fantastic article.
We need to get real, this state of affairs is decidedly uninspiring.
Now, this is where people start to roll their eyes. “We are not the same as the US.” “We aren’t as developed.” “We’re going through growing pains, we’re young, every country does.” We’ve all heard it before. There is a regrettable amount of dodging difficult issues, sometimes even under the guise of patriotism. The point of this piece is not, as it might seem, to sketch out a comparison between India and the United States, deriding one and exalting the other. We are more than aware from the Bush years and after that the US and the West have its fair share of problems. The one thing that this piece is urging you to notice is that dearth of inspiration at the top does not beget a dearth of inspiration overall.
Some of Know Your Vote’s team was in the US during the elections in 2008, and I speak for all of us when I say that it was a wake-up call. There we were, witnessing a turning point in history, and yes, we were inspired. We were inspired by the leadership we saw, by the soaring political rhetoric we heard, the slick campaigns and the seductive speeches. More than that, though, we were inspired by our peers. The 18, 19, and 20 somethings who did the practical work of getting people together, getting people to vote, and voting themselves.
There is no need to look further than Barack Obama’s speech this morning to know that this was, once again, what got him where he is today.
“I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics who tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests … I want to thank every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the very first time — or waited in line for a very long time … Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone — whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.”
This, then, brings us to the crux of the matter. India typically has some of the highest numbers of people who vote in the world. We urge you not to look to the top for inspiration when there is too little to be found, it can be disillusioning and demotivating. Look to yourselves, and look to each other. There is no dearth of inspiration or aspiration as long as we look at the bottom of the political chain rather than the top. We know that politics is difficult, that it can seem like nothing more than an unnecessarily contentious waste of time. It is the system that we live in and with, but this is the key, we have the tools to change it. It would take far too long to try to parse through all the parties and candidates and opinions we are fed on a daily basis. President Obama said of America,
“Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty…”
The same is true for India, multiple times over. We have to find inspiration for ourselves, and that lies in people who have the same struggles that we do. Those fighting against corruption, those struggling for a shot at a decent education, the ones that stand up for what they believe in. We are taking on the project of building a new political class — from the bottom up. It won’t be easy, and Know Your Vote has an offer to make. We want to help. We will document the candidates for election, their qualifications, their positions on policy issues that matter to YOU. We will make this information available to you, and we’re willing to research, and fact check, and give you the option to make well-informed, thought out decisions about who we put in power in this country. On one condition; you do it. We’ll even help you to get inspired, we’d like to answer questions, to connect people, to help people to register to vote if that’s what they need. We will take the time, if you will get inspired.
Let’s go back to Barack Obama, who puts it better than I can,
“I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
This is our charge: don’t let yourself and others get lazy. Talk, think, discuss, tell us what you would like us to provide you with and we will do our utmost to get you what you need. Let’s not get apathetic, let’s get a dialogue going. The search for inspiration is not at a dead end, it has just begun. Let’s use what democracy grants us, our people and our voices. If we do that, we can make noise, and, in 2014, we will be heard.
You can find the full transcript of President Barack Obama’s speech here.