Which of these stories will determine the fate of Washington this November?
On 3 October I read a Bloomberg story, based on 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. Bloomberg, 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 Prashant 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 Technicolor 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 lines?
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.