Barack Obama- The 44th Puratchi Thalaivar of the United States of America

Written by  //  November 8, 2012  //  National Politics  //  5 Comments

Let me start with a confession: I’ve always found the American electorate hard to understand. In 2010, in what was hailed as a massive thumbs down to Obama’s policies, most crucially on the economy, they gave the Democratic Party a right ‘shellacking’ and handed over the House to the Republicans. More of the same policies for two more years and they re-elected President Obama, single-handedly responsible for such policies in the first place, much more so than some relatively insignificant Democratic Congressmen from the states whom they voted out with great alacrity in 2010. Again, while re-electing President Obama, in the same election cycle, they continued to vest majority power in the House to the Republican Party, a seemingly counter-intuitive decision that seems a recipe for gridlock in Washington.

I am certain pollsters, analysts and anyone who observes American politics closer than I do, will find some plausible, rational and  entirely unconvincing explanations for this inexplicable voting behaviour. So, on the strength of my ignorance of American politics coupled with my favourite hobby of Indianising the world and its events, I offer two convincing ‘Indian’ insights into the 2012 election. First, why the election results demonstrate America’s version of multi-party coalition politics, a trend in modern politics, popular the world over, born, nurtured and cherished in India. Second, why America, in alternating between two parties in successive elections, is doing today what Tamil Nadu has done in every single election in my living memory. Obama’s victory isn’t exceptional or inexplicable, it’s just a case of  America’s desire to have something the world already does, achieved by copying the salutary precedent offered by Tamil Nadu.

Coalition politics is a staple of our times. Not only have coalition governments been a fairly widespread phenomenon in developing countries, but even in countries such as Britain, where single party governments are the norm and the polity not particularly fractious, a coalition government has come into power. Now, a number of reasons underlie such developments, some of which are country-specific. However broadly speaking, two reasons stand out universally: First, a shrinking of differences between political parties and second, the lack of standout leaders, who by the dint of their leadership can inspire the confidence of the masses to run the country single-handedly. It is evident that both these reasons hold true as much in the USA today as anywhere else.

While the Republican and Democratic parties may be distinct in terms of perception and their support bases, in terms of actual policies that they espouse, there is hardly very much to distinguish the two. In fact, as William Saletan argues in Slate, the Republican party should be happy about the fact that the country elected Obama, a Democrat undoubtedly, but certainly far from the rabid socialist he’s made out to be, and in fact, a man, whose policies when scrutinised, looks astonishingly like a moderate Republican (if such a thing exists today!).  Not closing down Guantanamo, the troop surge in Afghanistan, offering millions of dollars of debt reduction and finally an unstinted and unquestioned belief in American capitalism, all make him look fairly Goppy.

Again, despite his stirring rhetoric, his passionate oratory and his foreign policy vision, Obama has been a singular failure in using his leadership as a way to dispel doubts about his policies. His leadership skills, which he undoubtedly possesses a great deal of, are on their finest displays in non-settings such as Cairo, Oslo and election acceptance speeches in Chicago. In his domestic Presidential avatar, Obama comes across as a brooding academic, more given to careful diplomacy rather than passionate advocacy of his own beliefs. Little wonder then, that the overwhelming trope in the news coverage of the current election has been how polarised America has become, which, in some part, is a reflection of the limitations of Obama’s appeal as a President for a United America.

Despite the presence of the two factors largely responsible for the perpetuation of coalition politics worldwide, instituting a coalition in America’s presidential form of government is a complex matter. There are only two real candidates and you can’t really choose a combination of various parts of Obama’s and Romney’s anatomy and create the first coalition President of the United States (in case you’re wondering, [which I’m certain you’re not] what the most significant difficulty to achieving such a combination would be: It would of course, in USA, be the argument that doing such a thing would be akin to playing God.). But at the same time, the United States of America, the self-anointed leader of the Free World can’t not have what other, lesser countries in the Free and Unfree World have, i.e. a coalition government. So, the obvious answer is to vote for one party in the presidential elections and another in the House elections. The result: a gridlocked Washington with ‘ambition checking ambition’ to such a degree that Madison would be wishing that he hadn’t ever tom-tommed the phrase as the guiding principle of American government, so literally were his countrymen to construe it two centuries later.

A phrase which more accurately describes the American elections than Madison does, would however be: ‘What Tamil Nadu does today, the USA does tomorrow’. For every single election in living memory, the electorate in Tamil Nadu has voted in and out, the DMK and the AIADMK in painfully routine succession.  The DMK comes to power in Tamil Nadu, followed by the AIADMK sending most of its MPs to Delhi, followed by the AIADMK coming to power in Tamil Nadu, followed by DMK sending most of its MPs to Delhi… you get the drift. There is very little to separate the two parties in terms of policy, less still in terms of ideology in the present day. Their leaders of course are vastly different, a middle-aged Tamil Brahmin starlet who runs her party by dint of her close association with the party founder and original Tamil superstar, opposed by the superstar’s nemesis, a shrewd poet-politician, lyricist for several of his movies, an octogenarian leading an overtly non-Brahminical party.

In re-electing a Democratic President after giving him a shellacking in 2010, the American electorate has taken a leaf out of the manual of Tamil Nadu politics. Two parties with vastly different leaders, but similar views on a number of key issues and policy questions are bound to be rotated by an electorate caught between a rock and a hard place or, as the Economist put it, between ‘the devil we know’ (and the one we don’t).  So look forward to more chopping and changing, more inconsistency and more gridlock in the elections to come, along with more rational, yet unconvincing explanations from political observers of a puzzle that has only one right answer. An answer that lies 8500 miles away in Tamil Nadu, whose electorate has singularly masterminded Obama’s re-election as the Puratchi Thalaivar, oops, the President of the United States of America.

[Puratchi Thalaivar (Tamil): Translates literally as: Revolutionary Leader (English)]

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

View all posts by

5 Comments on "Barack Obama- The 44th Puratchi Thalaivar of the United States of America"

  1. Anonymous November 8, 2012 at 8:12 pm ·

    Interesting analogy, and I think one that is certainly true. It’s been fascinating from a personal standpoint following the U.S. elections this year, for this was my first one while living in the States, and you’re spot on when you describe Obama as a moderate Republican. In fact, in terms of foreign policy I think it can be argued that he’s been worse than Bush in many respects. The drone program, for instance, is entirely unjustifiable both legally and morally, and the precedents that it sets are unbelievably dangerous.

    What I found most troubling, though, was that Americans — 99 percent of them — were unwilling to think beyond the two alternatives. There were, in fact, independents contesting the election like Gary Johnson who ran in the Libertarian Party’s ticket. But there is a complete unwillingness to look beyond what one would otherwise consider their political credo. If one were an Obama supporter watching the presidential debates, for example, it mattered little what Romney was saying — the only objective of watching the debates was seemingly to find holes in the “other” party’s statements. The third-party debate, which wasn’t aired by any of the major networks, was hardly watched or discussed, and while this was hardly surprising, it was certainly disturbing.

    Also, the electoral college system in its present form leaves much to be desired. It encourages voter disenfranchisement, and many voters hardly vote because their state is pretty much settled well prior to the election. It can also lead to situations where the candidate who does not enjoy the popular mandate holding the presidency, as was the case when Bush won in 2000. On Tuesday night when Americans went to sleep knowing that they had re-elected Obama as president, they were still unaware of which candidate had actually secured the greater percentage of the votes.

    All of that said, as you rightly point out, we can all look forward to four more years of the same divided, partisan decision making process, which will result in change of little significance.

  2. Suhrith Parthasarathy November 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm ·

    The above was my comment:

    Interesting analogy, and I think one that is certainly true. It’s been fascinating from a personal standpoint following the U.S. elections this year, for this was my first one while living in the States, and you’re spot on when you describe Obama as a moderate Republican. In fact, in terms of foreign policy I think it can be argued that he’s been worse than Bush in many respects. The drone program, for instance, is entirely unjustifiable both legally and morally, and the precedents that it sets are unbelievably dangerous.
    What I found most troubling, though, was that Americans — 99 percent of them — were unwilling to think beyond the two alternatives. There were, in fact, independents contesting the election like Gary Johnson who ran in the Libertarian Party’s ticket. But there is a complete unwillingness to look beyond what one would otherwise consider their political credo. If one were an Obama supporter watching the presidential debates, for example, it mattered little what Romney was saying — the only objective of watching the debates was seemingly to find holes in the “other” party’s statements. The third-party debate, which wasn’t aired by any of the major networks, was hardly watched or discussed, and while this was hardly surprising, it was certainly disturbing.
    Also, the electoral college system in its present form leaves much to be desired. It encourages voter disenfranchisement, and many voters hardly vote because their state is pretty much settled well prior to the election. It can also lead to situations where the candidate who does not enjoy the popular mandate holding the presidency, as was the case when Bush won in 2000. On Tuesday night when Americans went to sleep knowing that they had re-elected Obama as president, they were still unaware of which candidate had actually secured the greater percentage of the votes.
    All of that said, as you rightly point out, we can all look forward to four more years of the same divided, partisan decision making process, which will result in change of little significance.

  3. Lekha November 9, 2012 at 6:45 am ·

    Well, it isn’t *really* like Tamil Nadu politics till every inch of the US is covered by humungous ugly posters of Obamma (sorry, I had to).

  4. Rohit November 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm ·

    An explanation for the GOP controlling the house is large scale gerrymandering of House districts by GOP controlled state legislatures in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas among other places. In states where redistricting was done on a non partisan basis such as Arizona and Florida, the Democrats picked up a few seats. A commentator actually stated that 2010 was the worst possible election for the Democrats to be routed as the GOP swept into power in state legislatures across the country and gerrymandered so blatantly that there will probably be a permanent Republican majority in the house till 2022. To be fair, the Democrats did the same in places like Illinois.

  5. Aditya Shivkumar November 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm ·

    well, first of all an interesting analogy of sorts, Barack as the messiah of the American masses with a pun as a puratchi thalaivar. but what ails the system of america, one needs to rewind a good 12 years back, to the swing state of Florida. a certain George Bush cut his teeth in the very same political system that we call today as flawed. it was flawed then, it is flawed now and unless some radical enough takes the plunge it shall remain flawed in the future. Popular vote vs electoral college, i wish such a system be in-force in the world’s democracy. many politicians would be running for shelter, for the common man shall emerge popular in our democracy.

    that, said 2010 definitely the worst possible years of sorts for both obama and democrats. now that the senate is back with the Democrats, only a matter of time, before they take a GOP for a ride in the congress.

    anyone casting their eye on the crucial 2016 elections ? or is it too soon ?!

Comments are now closed for this article.