What does Obama's re-election mean for India?

Last Updated: Wed, Nov 07, 2012 15:25 hrs
Democrats celebrate Obama's victory<br>

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. On Tuesday, after more than two hundred years of existence, it perhaps came to understand that immigrants matter — the U.S. President is their President too. Barack Obama told them as much, if a little more poetically, when he spoke of “perfecting” the Union.

If 2008 election was about race, this year’s election was about diversity. If American voters were 76 per cent white, rather than 72, Mitt Romney would have been President, said some.

By popular vote, Romney lost the election narrowly: the result showing that America was split almost exactly down the middle on what direction it wanted to take. Would it chase the American dream through ‘exceptionalism’ (as Romney defined it) or ‘inclusiveness’ that Obama referenced repeatedly in his acceptance speech.

The way the numbers added up, America voted for inclusiveness, but only just. White Americans do not think of themselves in ‘immigrant’ terms, they came too long ago for that term to apply. They think some of them possibly do not even realize that immigrants (specially Latinos) and minorities (mainly African Americans) will soon account for a third of the population.

This election was a tipping point in this respect: Romney won nearly two third of the white vote — in earlier times, this would have seen him through. The lesson for future Republican Presidential hopefuls, therefore, is: Not any more.

Numbers can make you cynical. This happened to Nixon in 1968, when he was able to basically split the democratic party in two along religious and race lines and get the support of one half. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s infamous ‘dirty tricks’ man, realized in 2004 that there was just enough of a white Republican base left to craft a clever, narrow victory for his candidate. That base still exists but it is no longer proportionally large enough to win elections by itself. The candidate who wins, therefore, is the candidate whose ‘exceptionalism’ lies in his inclusive spirit.

Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008 had a sweep of history that fit the historic nature of the event: the election of a black President. That speech used the life of a 106-year-old black lady, Ann Nixon Cooper, to describe an American century. In one sense, he was paying tribute to the past. On Tuesday, he looked almost exclusively at the future— carrying forward the idea of perfecting the Union; the idea that there was a lot to do.

On Tuesday, Obama’s oratory was on par with his best performances, but the subtext of his speech actually gave you the headlines of policies.

Yes there would br tax cuts for the rich — because every less privileged person living in America needs that money in order that they have a shot at the the American Dream. (So the coloured boy from the South side of Chicago doesn’t choose a street corner… thinks about becoming President). Obamacare — the President’s ambitious healthcare plan — will be pushed through. Obama told America how much this piece of state support meant to the father of a girl suffering from leukemia he had met on the campaign trail.

He had a message for the world as well. There were people around the globe who were fighting merely for the right to exercise their vote, he reminded Americans. America would stand by them. But it would wind down wars, build peace.

How does all of this impact India — or the subcontinent. Fact is, nothing much changes. In Pakistan, where drone strikes continue, reactions were predictable. One gentleman told CNN that he would have preferred it if Obama went home and played with his children rather than take on a second term. Going home to play with the children is not a privilege Pakistanis living on the hot border with Afghanistan enjoy.

But for India, the fact that the U.S. geopolitical focus is on Afghanistan and Pakistan is preferable to it being on India-Pakistan relations.

Some of the rhetoric in the Obama campaign had sensitive Indians hopping — there were many references to American jobs being moved out; Indians studying too hard (!) and so on.

Indians will never be the kind of voting bloc that the Latinos constitute for this kind of talk to prove expensive for a U.S. politician. So perhaps we should understand this President’s motivations a little better. His priority is jobs at home. Decent last minute job numbers saw him through the election. But the number of jobs being created is not keeping up with the number of jobs lost — or not found. Obama’s victory is spectacular when you consider that he won despite the well over 7 per cent unemployment rates.

India does take some jobs away. And there is a simple reason for this: we offer lots of services, we sell very few products. We work for lower wages, it is tempting to outsource to us. We have to thus make the slightly circular argument that it is as a result of our competitive wages that the products we help create (very little is ‘Indian’) cost less. More people can buy them. Overall, businesses gain.

To explain all of this on the campaign trail is almost impossible, so the candidate sticks to what is most immediate: jobs are being lost in the States, gained in Banglalore.

The health of India’s relationship with the United States, and with this President, will depend on how convincing we are when we say: we are helping rebuild your economy, this may cost you a few jobs in the short term.

Avirook Sen has been a journalist and writer for over 20 years. A former resident editor of Hindustan Times (Mumbai) and editor of Mid-Day, he has written with passion and insight on subjects as varied as sport and terrorism for top publications across the world. His first book, Looking for America, was published in 2010 to enthusiastic reviews. You can write to him at avirook@gmail.com

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