In the US, the election is finally a two-man race between Republican President George Bush and Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry. A field of 10 possible candidates for the Democratic nomination now has been narrowed to a single leader and the party is rapidly uniting behind Kerry to oust President Bush from the White House. India is faced with the coalition reality. The elections are a two-party race with the Congress and the BJP providing the only two platforms around which a coalition government can possibly be constructed. The Indian parliamentary general election, however, is taking on some of the hues and shades of a presidential contest. The BJP is attempting to project the incumbent prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as a paramount election factor. The Congress has chosen not to project a prime ministerial candidate. However, Sonia Gandhi remains the party’s (and its alliance’s) indisputable and singularly formidable ‘presidential’ candidate and campaigner (the runaway success of her jansampark abhiyan is a visible and obvious testament to this).
The context and circumstance of the Democratic and Congress election campaigns across the oceans have some unmistakable likenesses. Most visible during this election run-up, at least in metropolitan India, is a newfound zeal to exploit media strategies and employ advertising as a major political prop. This was triggered by the familiar ‘Bharat Uday/India Shining’ campaign of the incumbent NDA government. This is similarly exhibited by the ‘Aam Admi Ko Kya Mila?’ riposte of the Congress. In the run-up to the November 2004 US presidential election, as always, advertising is taking centrestage as President Bush and Senator Kerry slug it out on the airwaves. The Kerry team admits to being up against a formidable electoral and strategic opposition in the "right-wing smear machine" as they so aptly describe it. The Bush ad campaign focuses on Kerry being "indecisive", "wrong on taxes, wrong on defense" and has criticised him for not "defending America". The Republican campaign is almost three times bigger in ad spend. But Senator Kerry’s tagline of Bush "misleading America" appears to have taken the Republican camp somewhat by surprise. They did not anticipate the Kerry campaign would have sufficient resources to even be able to respond and were banking on a Republican advertising surge pitted against Kerry’s presumed "depleted state" post-primaries.
Even the issues central to each of these two elections are not as dissimilar as one might expect. Hard economic issues such as unemployment, jobs lost during the last government’s term, and the alarming and growing budget deficit are shared war cries of both the Congress in India and the Democrats abroad. In both places, the incumbent leaders and parties are attempting to play on the fears of their respective peoples to prove that they seek to protect their own national security interests. Service to the nation is finding a place in both elections as a major campaign focus. Kerry stresses his exemplary record as a Vietnam War veteran (three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star) and Sonia the unmatched sacrifices of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Broad-based, expensive media strategies have brought campaign finance to the fore. The BJP/NDA is today believed to be financially a much better endowed group than the Congress and allies. Five highly profitable years in power at the Centre in India seem to have given the NDA that edge! President Bush is reported to have raised approximately $158 million for his campaign so far based on recent financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Senator Kerry is attempting to jumpstart his post-Democratic primaries fundraising with a drive, being championed among others by the Clintons, for raising $10 million in 10 days. Even so, the Democrat coffers today bear resemblance to the Congress treasury. Make no mistake, though, neither in America nor in India can money alone win you an election.
The composition and structure of the teams on both sides have remarkable similarities too. Kerry operates much in the style of Sonia Gandhi—each functions as the respective party’s pre-eminent voice. The Republicans, however, like the BJP, are attempting tactically to deliver a one-two punch with Bush-Cheney hitting out against the solo opposition leader in a coordinated Vajpayee-Advani-like assault. There is another worthy comparison going down the political ladder. Karl Rove, President Bush’s most trusted electoral strategist, of whom Time magazine said, "He is so peripatetic, his political and policy interests so catholic, that it’s tempting for Democrats and Republicans alike to assume there are no limits to Rove’s power—even if there are", seems to be a BJP role model. Pramod Mahajan would like to believe he’s Rove’s Indian twin.
The striking resemblance of the electoral strategies and behaviour of the contesting political parties and leaders in India and the US is undeniable. Kerry and Sonia Gandhi are fighting against right-wing incumbents who have the worst record on jobs of any leader in the history of their nations and are seeking to use foreign policy insecurities to bolster their domestic appeal. Kerry and Sonia Gandhi have much in common. Election victories later this year for both would carry these parallels to their logical conclusion.
(A former investment banker, Kanishka Singh worked for the Congress on the Dec ’03 assembly poll in Delhi.)