America will elect a new occupant of the White House next year and India had better start paying attention to the presidential race. The American president is not like the president of France, say, whose identity makes not one jot of difference to Indians. The only other heads of government who matter critically to India are the presidents of Russia and China; but those are dubiously elected and unelected potentates, respectively. That they preside over countries that are malign forces on the world stage is another matter altogether.
The United States, by contrast, is a benign power. And POTUS—to use the unlovely American acronym for President of the United States—is pretty close to being omnipotent (omni-POTUS) in the world at large. What she does matters not just to Americans, or to
people in America’s hemisphere, but also to India and Indians (and to every other country in India’s jittery vicinity).
She. I’m the last person in the world who’d resort to the feminine pronoun out of a politically “correct” reflex. I use it here because the next POTUS will be Hillary Rodham Clinton. Likh ke le lo, as we say in India, with our touching reverence for the written word.
Let us prepare for Hillary, but as we do, let’s also enjoy the circus of the American election, which pits the unstoppable Mrs Clinton against a terrible Republican rabble. What an egregiously predictable replay this is of the last presidential election, when Barack Obama, running for a second term, was ranged for long periods against a crew of Republicans so motley that one wondered whether the
Grand Old Party had decided to “throw” the game.
In the last edition of this spectacle, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman all duked it out at various stages with Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, sapping him of vitality in the process. Only
one of them—Romney—stood any chance of toppling Obama, and yet, driven by hubris, ideological fuel, and sheer pig-headedness, the rest insisted on staking a claim.This time, too, the Republicans are a laughing stock. Only Jeb Bush stands any chance of halting Hillary’s juggernaut; and yet, driven again by hubris, ideological fuel, and sheer pig-headedness, we have in the fray Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Scott Walker (almost certainly), the unspeakable religious nut Mike Huckabee and, last but least, Donald Trump. There are others: these are names that I type from memory.
The only challenge Hillary faces from her own party is from Bernie Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont. He is 73, wildly to the left of the American political centre, and so underfunded that his campaign kitty compares with Hillary’s as the GDP of Burkina Faso does with Germany. The Sanders Effect has pushed Hillary further to the left than she’s comfortable being, but once he’s eliminated, she’ll drift back to her natural ideological berth. She’s a political shape-shifter. I believe the word for her is “pragmatic”.
The Republicans, on the other hand, are a largely doctrinaire bunch, and they’re choking on the poison of their ideological purity. Jeb is an exception, and is very much a “Hillary of the Right,” with all her political flexibility, but minus her occasional mendacity and the fiscal miasma that hangs over her family foundation. Like Hillary, it’s hard to tell what Jeb really stands for, but after eight years of Obama and his infuriating certitudes, it’s actually rather pleasant to have two leading candidates who seem to be making it up as they go along.
Indians must wonder what all this fuss is about. The country’s politics is nakedly pragmatic. Of course, all parties have their manifestos (even if printed minutes before an election is set to commence), as well as their doctrinal signposts. But ultimately, everything is negotiable. In America, too, right now, everything is up for grabs. Hillary will win because her grabbing technique is world-class. Jeb, you will find, is butter-fingered.
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.