Some facts of life
Which of these stories will determine the fate of Washington this November?
On 3 October I read a Bloomsberg story, based from data just released by
the American government, that the top 1% constituting 1.1 million
households, took 93% of income growth in the last year. It was the widest
gap in four decades. Bloomsberg, a very thoroughly capitalist news service,
noted that income disparity in America had surpassed Uganda, which must be
a milestone of sorts.
That Wednesday evening Mitt Romney, a somersault artiste who believes that
the 47% of America which does not pay tax deserves its poverty, creamed
Barack Obama in a televised presidential debate that delighted Republicans,
devastated Democrats and probably left the undecided cheering for more.
Luckily for Obama elections were still a month away, which leaves a lot of
time for questions.
The most obvious question surely is: why didn’t Obama use such data to
smother Romney? This one can be answered quickly. Obama and his team have
been laid low by a malignant virus called complacency. They were too busy
sniggering in private to worry about what might happen in public.
Newspapers can place a statistic in print, but it does not become a
political fact until it is bounced into play. The past week saw an
illustration of this reality in Delhi. The transformation of Mrs Sonia
Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra into a business genius after the
Congress’ 2009 victory, thanks to some fiscal sleight of hand by a business
house, has been the subject of much conversation for a while. Very little
remains secret in Delhi, least of all property purchases. One newspaper,
the Economic Times, even published an investigation. But this brewing
scandal remained on the edges of consciousness until anti-corruption
crusaders Arvind Kejriwal and Shashi Bhushan, armed with relevant
documents, shoved it into the limelight. It is now voters’ property.
There is a more subtle equivalence. While surely tempted during the first
UPA term, Vadra and his businessmen friends played a restrained hand,
because both UPA and its presiding family were careful. The top heavy
victory of 2009 made them careless.
Spin doctors are hired to bowl googlies in a crisis. So far, those who
have stepped out to defend Vadra, largely from the second tier of
loyalists, have chosen bluster for the media and threats against the
whistle-blowers. One legal eagle argued that since the documents were in
the public domain they did not amount to much. Alas, this does not make the
documents untrue. A second loyalist charged that Vadra had been targeted
because he was Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law. That is a bit of a non-starter.
After all, Vadra got these favours only because he was a member of the
Gandhi family. There was little chance of him becoming a property prince if
he had married his neighbour’s daughter in Moradabad.
Obama’s spin doctors, in comparison, justified their salary. They picked up
at least one sentimental nugget from the trash can of despair. They sold
the story that their man had been distraught because his wife Michelle was
upset that he had chosen to debate Romney on their 20th wedding
anniversary. She was expecting a romantic dinner instead. If you believe
that story, then your library hasn’t progressed beyond Mills and Boon. But
if every American wife whose husband has forgotten an anniversary goes out,
possibly with a small lump in the throat, to vote for Obama he will win by
a landslide. Women are his core constituency.
Television, for selfish reasons, has promoted a myth that it can determine
the fate of elections. The dark stubble of Richard Nixon, during the first
televised debate in 1960, has been turned into an iconic reason for his
surprise defeat. John Kennedy won not because Nixon forgot to shave, but
because he represented the young America which would go on to shape the
Sixties. Since television also claims to have determined the course of the
Vietnam war, it is pertinent to note that it was lost in the rice fields
of Indo-China, not the studios of CBS. Television brought the bad news back
in technicolour and widened the dismay; but if the Pentagon had been
winning battles, it would have also led the hysteria for greater violence,
since hysteria contributes to higher ratings. Media tells the story, but
only very rarely can it change the ending.
How will the Obama-Romney election end? Will that half of America which
believes that Romney is the candidate of 1% change its mind because Obama
was asleep at the microphone? Will women who know the punitive and invasive
Republican agenda for abortion turn away from Obama because he lost his
In the Indian general elections of 2004, BJP-led NDA had the better
argument, but Congress-led UPA had the better facts. In 2009 Dr Manmohan
Singh was in control of both facts and argument. Since then his arguments
have been waylaid by the corruption of colleagues, and facts have lost
touch with daily life.