It's Morning in India as U.S. Votes Are Counted

Hundreds of thousands of Indians will rise earlier than usual tomorrow to join U.S. voters in tracking the final hours of the presidential election. The long campaign -- and particularly the candidate debates -- was closely watched in India, whose citizens asked themselves why it was so improbable that the leaders of their country's two major political parties would ever consent to a similar challenge.

In 2008, Barack Obama's historic campaign and skepticism-dissolving language caused a bubble of optimism about politics in the U.S. and around the world, and the weight of Indian support falls squarely behind him this time, too. But Indians have invested less, with both heart and head, in the election of 2012. Obama's possible re-election isn't as interesting. And in a campaign fought mainly over domestic issues, there has been no significant mention of India in either candidate's pitch.

All the talk in policy circles about the "converging interests" of "the world's two largest democracies" seems to have been left behind. India knows that, as an emerging economy and a politically-stable democracy, it doesn't have the same claim to the U.S.'s attention as China or the conflict zones in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Although Obama visited India during his presidency and made a highly praised speech in the parliament, there has been nothing in the last four years to match the warmth of 2008, when the signature of an important nuclear deal in the last days of the George W. Bush administration marked a high point in Indo-U.S. political relations.

A good overview of the arc of recent relations -- which includes ties between the same Indian coalition government, the UPA, with both Republican and Democratic administrations -- was supplied by the Indian foreign-policy analyst C. Raja Mohan in an interview titled "How India Sees the U.S. Presidential Race." Mohan emphasized that Obama is far more popular than his predecessor, even though the previous Republican administration had gone to greater lengths to build partnerships with India.  He remarked that in the Obama years New Delhi missed "the special attention that it got from the Bush White House." He sketched out a small map of important bilateral issues to which the Democrats and Republicans had different approaches, particularly foreign policy:

During the Cold War, there was greater empathy in the Indian political class toward the Democratic Party. Arguably, the political bias in Delhi now favors the Republican Party, which is seen as less protectionist than the Democratic Party. India is more comfortable with the Republican geopolitical appreciation of India's value in the international system.

Delhi remains wary of the Democratic Party's foreign policy establishment, given its interventionist impulses, especially the itch to mediate on the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan and its focus on human rights issues. Obama, to be sure, has walked away from the initial temptation to focus on Kashmir and has overruled the non-proliferation community in the United States in his effort to implement the Bush deal on integrating India into the global nuclear order.

Delhi is concerned about muscular Republican policies in the Middle East, which complicate India's domestic politics.

If India figures at all in the 2012 election, it is as the destination for lost U.S. jobs, particularly in the software industry. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri reported recently in the Hindustan Times that the Obama campaign's ads criticizing Mitt Romney as a "pioneer in outsourcing" could be crucial in winning over voters in states with depressed economies. David J. Karl had called out the bad faith of this attack in a Bloomberg Businessweek article in May with the headline "The Indian Outsourcing Issue Is Back":

The new Obama ad has a long political pedigree, though it is still dismaying given how the president argued for exorcising zero-sum thinking in bilateral affairs during his visit to India in November 2010. Then the White House took pains to portray India as an economic opportunity too golden to pass up; indeed, the main purpose of his visit seemed to be securing as many commercial deals for U.S. companies as possible.

While in Mumbai, he told a gathering of U.S. and Indian business leaders that “in our interconnected world, increased commerce between the United States and India can be and will be a win-win proposition for both nations.” He went on to emphasize the necessity of dispelling “old stereotypes” about India being “a land of call centers and back offices that cost American jobs” or bilateral ties being “a one-way street of American jobs and companies moving to India.” Elsewhere during the trip, Obama cautioned that “… we should not be resorting to protectionist measures. We should not be thinking that it’s just a one-way street. I want both the citizens of the U.S. and India to understand the ties between the two countries.”

Cynics may dismiss the inconsistency between Obama’s words then and his current campaign rhetoric as the usual electoral palaver. There is a real cost involved, however, beyond that of creating another needless irritant in bilateral relations. It also undermines other parts of the president’s economic agenda in which India plays an important role.

But there's plenty that Indians have taken away from the presidential race itself. (Last year, the politician Shashi Tharoor even made a case for switching India's U.K.-type model of government over to an American-style presidential one.) The advance of broadband Internet in India has meant that it no longer takes hours to download videos of speeches or to follow news on a live stream. Last month, thousands of Indians frustrated with the intransigence and cynicism of their country's political debate watched videos of the Obama-Romney debates on the Internet, and the columnist Aakar Patel spoke for many (even if he overstated the case against India) when he wrote:

It is with admiration and shame that we must watch the debates between Republican Romney and Democrat Obama. Admiration, because they operate in a society where debate decides the mind of voters. This aspect became more remarkable when we saw that the election turned after the first exchange between Romney and Obama.

This means America's voters have an intellectual engagement with their country's politics. That they hold judgment on the candidate till they hear from him what his position is, on the things that concern them, and then weigh it against the position of his opponent. This is unthinkable in India, where voting is done on the basis of tribal identity. Here is where we must feel a little shame. Here Patels vote as Patels, Dalits as Dalits, Muslims as Muslims, and Lingayats as Lingayats. All our parties are actually coalitions of castes, even our ideological parties. ...

This difference between America and India is not because of the difference in candidates, mind you. ...The difference between America and India, the reason we don't have debates deciding elections, is in the Indian voter.

But many of India's long-established predilections have been shaken in the recent past, and perhaps as a result of our being able to look into the functioning of other democracies around the world, the Indian voter will cut a new, improved figure in the next general elections in 2014. Meanwhile, as the curtain falls on a long U.S. election year, the lights in India are sure to come on especially early tomorrow.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.