Two things fascinated me most about the American election. The first was that, as with India in 2014, media pundits, pollsters and the educated class in general proved that they were completely disconnected from ordinary voters. The second was the grace with which President Obama promised to help the president-elect with the transition to the White House. This for a man who during a bitter, vicious campaign had questioned not just everything Barack Obama has done but even his right to be President of the United States.
Before writing another word, I want to make clear that if I were an American voter I would not have voted for Donald Trump. I did not like the tone of his campaign and I share the view that he exhibits definite signs of being a demagogue, a bigot and of having a myopic vision that may make the world a more dangerous place than it already is. We must hope that once he becomes President, a wiser, more serious man will emerge to enable him to tackle grim international problems that are complex and terrifying.
So what was it about Trump that appealed so much to ordinary Americans that he succeeded in defeating an opponent who was infinitely better prepared for the most powerful job in the world? I thought about this many times as I sat glued to CNN watching the results last week, and concluded that he had touched a painful chord that escaped the notice of America’s political class and all its media pundits. They dismissed him as a buffoon from day one. As with Narendra Modi in 2014, media pundits failed to see what was completely clear to millions of voters. This was that they wanted to vote for someone who was not offering the usual solutions to their problems. Modi did that with his slogan of ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’, and Trump did that with his promise to ‘make America great again’. Ordinary people saw what pundits missed.
Now let’s talk about the importance of a healthy transfer of power in a democracy, even if it is doubtful that Trump would have accepted defeat as graciously as Hillary Clinton did. During the last debate between them, he warned that he would only accept the election results if he won. So let’s hope that he has been humbled by the grace with which President Obama has promised to instruct his staff to make every effort to help him in the transition period. This kind of dignified transfer of power is something we certainly did not see in India in 2014. Remember the sulky looks on the faces of the Gandhis as they accepted defeat without once congratulating Narendra Modi?
To this day it seems as if they have not fully accepted that what they appear to consider their birthright to rule India has been snatched from them. This could be because when a single family is elected over and over again to the highest office, it gets used to the idea of ruling and not governing. So we have a situation today when Rahul Gandhi rarely misses a chance to insult the Prime Minister and his handful of MPs never miss a chance to turn debates in Parliament into rancorous shouting matches.
Does this continue to happen because of the hope that relentless acrimony will make it impossible for the government to survive a full term? Or the equally forlorn hope that the Prime Minister will be distracted from delivering on his promises? One way or another, it serves to distract the media from concentrating its energies on real issues instead of noise and fury. So another lesson that we in India can learn from America is the importance of giving a newly elected leader a full chance. Prime Minister Modi has lately taken to talking about the need for general elections and elections to state Assemblies to be held together, on a preordained date instead of any old time. This is something the Election Commission should start working on seriously so that future prime ministers can spend more time on governance than on electioneering. Unless this happens, India will continue to stagger along instead of moving at full speed towards the middle of a century that everyone, including Modi, prophesied would belong to us.
Meanwhile, for the sake of America and for the sake of the world, we must hope that the American media was as wrong about Trump as the Indian media was about Modi. Darkness and horrible communal divisions were supposed to have torn India apart in the first months of Modi becoming Prime Minister and this did not happen. Darkness and doom continue to be prophesied now that Donald Trump has become leader of the free world. May these prophesies be proved as wrong as those ones have proved to be.