New Delhi, India––The U.S. elections are naturally the number-one news story around the globe right now, and if you believe the folks at CNN or the BBC, virtually the entire planet is rooting for the defeat of George W. Bush.
But there are countries where John Kerry is not strongly favored over the incumbent, and surprisingly India is one of them. A recent poll showed that Indians split evenly when asked whom they favor in the election.
This is surprising for a number of reasons. Not least is the old-fashioned tiers-mondiste anti-Americanism that still afflicts much of the Indian political class. Anyone who hopes that this feeling has evaporated since the days when Nehru cultivated Mao’s China and the Soviet Union, or at least since Manmohan Singh opened up the Indian economy in the mid-’90s, should just take a look at The Hindu, India’s English-language newspaper of record. Its comment pages might easily have been written by Noam Chomsky’s more prolix twin.
Last month The Hindu joined with the Communist parties in the ruling Congress-dominated coalition to denounce with mouth-frothing fury an American offer of condolences and FBI assistance after separatist terrorists set off bombs killing 80 people in India’s troubled northeast. This was “unwarranted interference in India’s internal affairs.”
Frivolous “anti-globalist” sentiment of the kind represented by novelist Arundhati Roy is all too common here: Many Indian intellectuals truly believe that a capitalist-imperialist American administration invaded Iraq to secure ultra-favorable business contracts. And when India’s leading newsweekly, Outlook, asked Indian literati living in the States for their take on the election, authors such Amitav Ghosh and Suketu Mehta came out with predictably Sontagesque rants about the Bush administration’s “manipulation of fear” at home and “provocation” of hatred abroad.
Then there is the fact that our large Indian-American community, increasingly influential in the mother country, includes large numbers of American-born young voters who were panicked into anti-Bush activism by hysterical press stories warning of a violent anti-South Asian, anti-Muslim backlash in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. (On the other hand, their parents, who have made Indian-Americans the most economically successful immigrant group, still tend to be more concerned with tax rates than the Patriot Act.)
Nevertheless, pro-Bush and pro-American feeling has grown here, partly thanks to smart policy by a U.S. administration not known for clever diplomacy. The Bush administration has won influential friends in the political elite by its assiduous prosecution of a closer alliance with India. The other side of India’s paranoia and insecure prickliness is a susceptibility to flattery. And that America has pressed ahead with a new strategic partnership (despite India’s eventual decision not to contribute troops to Iraq) rightly flatters India’s sense that it is a regional, perhaps even a global, superpower.
While Bill Clinton was and is enormously popular in India, thanks largely to his visit to New Delhi, it was the Bush administration that pushed for the 2003 agreement called Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). This was originally negotiated with the former BJP administration but has been unambiguously embraced by the new Congress government. Step two of the NSSP agreement, which deals with issues of civilian nuclear energy, space programs, high-tech trade, and missile defense, was inaugurated in New Delhi last week. This kind of progress has tended to assuage Indian irritation with American support for Pakistan’s President Musharraf. (Though the United States treats the Pakistani leader as a key ally in the war on terror, India is understandably more inclined to see Pakistan as a major sponsor of terrorism.)
It has also been widely noted in India that while the Democratic manifesto only mentions India in the context of nuclear proliferation, the Republican manifesto talked of a “historic transformation” of Indo-U.S. relations and India’s vital role in creating a strategically stable Asia. Weirdly enough, the fact that there was only one line concerning in India in the former document, but several paragraphs in the latter, offended Indian commentators more than the Bush administration’s refusal to support a permanent Indian seat on the U.N Security Council (a reform that Kerry claims he will back if elected).
But the two issues that have played the most important part in fostering hopes for a Bush win–and which can trump the mockery of Bush as a buffoon in the Indian media–have much more to do with the self-interest of India’s growing and increasingly influential middle class (a middle class increasingly bound to the U.S. by ties of blood and business–in smart New Delhi neighborhoods such as Vasant Vihar and Defence Colony, almost every household has at least one child studying in the U.S.).
Those issues are outsourcing, now a major source of middle-class income, and visas for education and work in the U.S., in particular the much-desired H1B visa.
By flirting with protectionism during the early part of his campaign, John Kerry sent a wave of fear through that class, a wave that no subsequent back-peddling has dissipated. Indeed, whatever last month’s polls said, I’ve been assured by Indian analysts that if Indians could vote, Kerry would be sunk.
But then, no matter what stake various peoples around the world have in America’s polls, it’s probably just as well that only Americans will have a real say in who the next president will be, especially if the CNN and BBC folk are even half right.
–Jonathan Foreman is a reporter currently in India.