With less than a week to go before the United States votes, nobody seems sure about who shall win. I have just finished reading eight different opinion polls, and none of them agree on whether it shall be Bush or Kerry taking the oath of office come January 20. (American law stipulates that the candidate who wins the mandate shall take, or renew, the oath of office on the specified date, just as every president has done since Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.)
Since the 'scientific' opinion polls are having such a tough time reading the public mood correctly, the media is turning to a much older way of predicting a winner -- reading the omens. I am not referring to professional astrologers and palmists -- though someone, somewhere has undoubtedly consulted one of those too -- but to precedents from the past.
Will it be the taller candidate who wins? That was generally the case -- except in 1976 (when the 5' 9" Jimmy Carter beat the 6' 2" Gerald Ford, and in 2000 when the 6' 1" Gore ceded ground to a man who is two inches shorter). Rising hemlines in women's skirts indicate a win for the traditionally liberal Democrats over conservative Republicans -- but nobody can find any discernible trend just now. So, it has come down to two infallible measures -- the fashion adopted by American children on Halloween and the success of the Washington Redskins!
The George W Bush interview
Halloween is not, despite the best efforts of greeting card companies, a festival of any import in India. It stems from a belief that witches and other creatures of the night come out in force when the sun sets on October 31 to make whoopee before All Saints Day on November 1. American children celebrate by going around in masks and asking for candy. Some of the most popular masks in election years tend to be those of the two principal candidates. And the man whose face adorns the most masks goes on to win the polls. (Or so say the data from 1980 down.)
The John Kerry interview
And the Washington Redskins? They happen to be the American capital's local football team. Commentators have noted that in every election from 1936 onward the incumbent part has lost the White House if the Redskins lost their last home game. (There are no statistics available for elections before 1936 for the simple reason that there was no team of that name; they were then the 'Boston Braves' and had no predictive powers before the franchise moved to Washington.) The Redskins' record is perfect. In 1948, when every opinion poll was predicting disaster for Harry Truman, Redskin fans thought otherwise
when their team beat the Boston Yanks; Truman pulled off one of the greatest political upsets a few days later.
Unfortunately, neither American children nor Washington footballers have given any indications so far. Halloween comes just two days before the polls this time, scarcely enough time to gather all the data. And the Redskins' last home game too is on Halloween, still some days off as I write.
One thing, however, is all too clear -- the intent interest in these polls. It shows how ideologically polarised the American electorate happens to be. And that is a tribute to the much maligned party system, that they are able to throw up two clear points of view.
That is in stark contrast to the 14th general election which ended in India earlier this year. I am old enough to remember every general election fought in Independent India -- even if my memories of 1952 are beginning to acquire distinct sepia tones -- and I think I can safely say that the 14th was the most insipid that comes to mind. Political parties will undoubtedly blame this on the restrictions placed by the Election Commission, but what I found lacking was the utter lack of debate on national issues.
Think about it for a moment before you howl in protest. For all the talk of 'communal' and 'secular', wasn't the last general election strangely reminiscent of a municipal corporation poll on a very large scale? 'Bijli-Sadak-Paani' is the stuff of debate for choosing a corporator or an MLA, not at a federal level. I missed the cut and thrust of old on, say, foreign relations, or the general thrust of economic policy, or even on the role of religion? This seemed to be an election fought in a municipal drainpipe! Small wonder if even cadre-based parties found it impossible to enthuse voters...
American politics is far from perfect. But grant the Democrats and the Republicans this much: they are honest about offering cogent, distinct points of view which the voter is invited to choose. May we call it the triumph of ideology over a plodding bureaucratic frame of mind? If nothing else, such interest in Halloween masks and football teams is better than a dispirited murmur of 'Sab chor hai!'
Tailpiece: I was shaking my head in utter disbelief after reading rediff's interview with our minister of state for external affairs. Two questions sum up the utter vacuity of what passes for strategic thinking in India these days.
Q. What has India gained so far strategically from its pro-Palestine policy?
A. Why do you think in those terms? We have a policy and we follow that policy.
Q. Do you believe India has benefited from that policy?
A. ...You know the history of India. India is a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Do you think it is only for the benefit of India?
If you think ideology does not matter, please consider the alternative -- the sheer banality of inertia!