America has just finished one of its most acrimonious and divisive presidential elections in history. The nation has expended two years, a billion dollars, and tons of energy, only to pick the least bad option. Even so, America has benefited greatly from this exercise. It has picked a capable leader, devised a national agenda, brought people out in droves to participate in governance, gave them a chance to air their anger, and above all, elected its first non-politician president. All these benefits would do wonders for a country like India. We must see with clear eyes what America's presidential elections are all about, beyond the usual "which candidate is good for India" analysis.
America's [produces] good leaders because presidential candidates don't have to be party men or women... In India, only diehard party members who have done nothing but politics reach the top.
This election has shown that Americans are not superior to any other people, including Indians. America has its bigots, racists, and communalists, just like India. It has its vote banks. It has media that is blatantly partisan. It has career politicians who say or do anything. They also promise the world, on the backs of their people, to gain popularity. They also pander to society's lowest feelings and worst fears. So any feeling of inferiority that Indians might have—we are illiterate, poor, or vote on the basis of caste or religion, etc.—must be jettisoned.
But despite all these common societal weaknesses the American presidential election still produces great leaders. Donald Trump may be this round's least bad option, but he has an impressive background. He singlehandedly built a multibillion dollar real estate empire, establishing his brand around the world. More than once he overcame personal financial ruin. He became a bestselling author, and an Emmy-nominated TV star. To win this election, he crafted a carefully balanced platform of populist ideas. He ridiculed his own party, and almost all of America's media. Yet he overcame a well-entrenched political insider supported by a popular sitting President. Trump earned every one of his 59 million votes.
By contrast, India's chief executives are normally picked in backroom dealings. They are not visionaries, but dealmakers. They don't have a pan-India view of their goals. They often lack in character, temperament, experience or oratory skills.
A wider talent pool
America's gruelling nationwide campaigns produce good leaders because presidential candidates don't have to be party men or women. They can come from any walk of life. One of the biggest stories of this election is Trump's hijacking of the Republican Party. A businessman with no political background was able to win the nomination of a major political party purely on the strength of his public support. Of the previous 10 American presidents, only half were career politicians. The rest had other backgrounds: a military commander, a farmer, an actor and a couple of businessmen. In India, as we know, only diehard party men who have done nothing but politics all their lives reach the top. This limits the pool of talented leaders to pick from.
Checks and balances
Americans can take risks with bold new leaders because their system has checks and balances that give them confidence. A President doesn't have all executive and legislative powers, like an Indian Prime Minister. He has to depend on Congress—also elected directly by the people—to pass laws, get money, or declare war. He has to work with state governments who are totally beyond his control. Then there's the Supreme Court where his actions can be challenged. And every President faces midterm elections, held every two years.
A President doesn't have all executive and legislative powers, like an Indian PM. [There are provisions to] stop a President, or his party, from running amok.
These provisions stop a President, or his party, from running amok. India's system on the other hand provides the ruling party carte blanch. With no oversight, they usually overreach, and become corrupt.
A national agenda
Another lesson is in how the American presidential election produces a national agenda. Each candidate puts forth his or her ideas for the future of the country. Through a series of primary elections, these ideas and their proponents are put to public scrutiny. In this election, more than 20 televised public debates were held in this phase alone. The political parties' platforms thus emerge from how people respond. This bottom-up approach makes people drive their party's, and then the nation's, agenda. India doesn't do this. The people usually have only days before the election to learn the parties' aims. And these are usually common minimum programs cobbled together by party bosses based of their political conveniences. As a result, people don't pay these manifestos any attention, and instead vote on menial considerations like caste. The nation's agenda is never the same as the people's agenda.
This process of devising national goals has another important benefit, especially for a country like India. It helps configure the national polity into a two party system. Direct nationwide elections usually percolate up starkly different but centrist choices. Peripheral or extreme ideas, as well as their proponents, have very little chance of drawing nationwide support. In India, the lack of such a mechanism has led to many party coalitions in the central government. Political parties don't have to compete for nationwide support for their ideas; they can manoeuvre their way into power on the strength of a few seats in Parliament. This is the main reason for India's political fragmentation.
A cathartic process
America's national election also helps in the country's social cleansing. Bitterness and resentments on large issues—illegal immigration, economic inequality, healthcare costs, racial tensions, wars, etc.—have been aired in public for more than a year. This has a cathartic effect on society. India can use such a periodic nationwide purge of ill feelings toward their government, and each other.
India can use such a periodic nationwide purge of ill feelings toward their government, and each other.
Americans have shown their liking for participating in this social upheaval every four years. They express themselves on social media, attend town hall meetings, watch public debates, and contribute time and money. This year's presidential debates drew a record 84 million viewers. In the last election people contributed about $600 million—this time $721 million—in small donations of $200 or less. India can use such public funding, and accounting, of campaign finances. And it would definitely gain from such public debates.
It's time India's chief executive was similarly elected, directly by the people of the entire country. Selecting a party man in backroom dealings who only represents a small constituency is not befitting of a great nation.