Some parallels between the current US presidential election and the last Indian Parliamentary elections are interesting to note. Economics and governance were major issues in both elections. The Donald Trump campaign has repeatedly focused on the economic stagnation in America and the importance of public investment being driven to infrastructure and industrial development. Job creation is not always a critical issue in US elections. But Trump has ensured that jobs—rather the lack of them—remain uppermost in the minds of the electorate when they make choices. Indeed, looking at critical ‘swing’ states like Philadelphia, there’s little doubt over the importance of jobs in the current American perception of the future. Trump’s emphasis on new jobs is pretty much similar to the emphasis that Narendra Modi had put into his campaign on more and better jobs. The two campaigns are also similar in their emphasis on infrastructure. Very rarely do US presidential candidates, like Trump, point to the pitiable state of national infrastructure. The shabby LaGuardia and JFK airports of New York are probably the best examples of what Trump is alluding to, as are the painfully slow paces of traffic on freeways and highways in California and New Jersey. Infrastructure and economic efficiency were high on prime minister Modi’s campaign as well and they have continued to remain high in the economic agenda of his government thereafter.
An important point of contrast between the economic agendas of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump cannot always avoid comparison with a similar contrast in the Indian election. Hillary is pursuing a more ‘inclusive’ economic agenda, banking largely on expansion of entitlement schemes such as healthcare and social security support aided by high federal income taxes. The healthcare plans of president Obama form part of the larger social security support that Hillary Clinton plans to expand on drawing the lowest incomes class votes on her side in the process. The strategy is qualitatively similar to the economic agenda the Congress rolled out in the last election depending primarily on the universal food security scheme for the poorer sections of the society as well as the rural employment guarantee programme, which, apart from their redistributive impacts, were supposed to fetch for Congress the low-income household votes. Modi’s ‘doing business’ agenda proved decidedly superior to the entitlement-based plank of the Congress. It remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton’s economic plans suffer a similar fate.
Corruption and poor governance were recurring themes in the Indian election narrative of 2014. These hurt the incumbent Congress and Gandhi family the most in face of sustained political attack by Modi and the BJP. Trump has had so much personal backlash to handle that he could hardly come back to the points full on that he wanted to press the most: financial irregularities by the Clinton Foundation and the irresponsible use of her private e-mail server by Clinton during her tenure as the secretary of state. Even if late, he has eventually got his chance to get even with the FBI inflicting the maximum damage—and greatest help—to Clinton and Trump, respectively, by disclosing its persistence with the email investigations only eleven days prior to casting of ballots. Hillary’s chagrin at the development, and the impact it has made on voter choices, is evident from opinion polls reflecting Trump narrowing his gap. If Trump eventually pulls off what still appears an exceedingly difficult task, he would have to thank the FBI, and of course, the people of the US for choosing the ‘vulgar’ over the ‘corrupt’.
The biggest difference between the latest elections in the world’s two largest democracies is the fact that the challenger to the incumbent in the Indian election—Modi—was hardly an underdog at the height of the electoral battle. Indeed, his political acceptability soon became widespread to the extent that most of the mainstream media begun backing down from their stringent anti-Modi postures as elections drew near. In the US, Trump remains the underdog and would be pulling off one of the most incredulous results in American political history if he manages to defeat Hillary Clinton. The opinion polls, while reflecting the electorate’s acceptance of the fact that Trump is a better bait for America as far as creating jobs are concerned, also point to the same electorate’s overwhelming lack of conviction of his being temperamentally ‘unfit’ for the job. This was never so with Modi. Indeed, on a head-to-head basis, Rahul Gandhi was considered a far less temperamentally suitable candidate for being prime minister than him. Trump’s inability to project himself as a balanced and capable US presidential hopeful is in marked contrast to the mounting popular acceptance that Modi picked up on the way.
The author is senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economic policy) at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. E-mail: [email protected] [email protected] Views are personal