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Indians Savor Samosas and U.S. Election

New America Media, News Feature, Sandip Roy Posted: Sep 22, 2008

Editor's Note: Indians love politics, and the 2008 U.S. election, featuring a black candidate and two mavericks has captivated them. Newspapers are writing editorials on the "recklessness" of Sen. John McCain for choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. NAM editor Sandip Roy saw first hand the excitement the election has generated back in his native India.

BANGALORE, India Sara Shahs samosas might just help Barack Obama become the next President of the United States.

At her home here in Indias hi-tech capital, Shah is setting out the snacks for a meeting of the Bangalore chapter of
Democrats Abroad.

The Shahs moved to Bangalore from Oregon when her husband Munier got an assignment with Intel here. She kick started the chapter this July. Until this year, only the main chapter in New Delhi was really active, says Shah. Now Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad are all off the ground. Its a sign of how critical this election is, says Shah. And how interested people are.

Munier got a taste of that at an Intel staff meeting. Everyone was talking about Sarah Palin, he chuckles. I am not sure that would have happened at a staff meeting in the U.S.

Forget the war in Iraq or even neighboring Afghanistan. The U.S. elections are pretty much the only international news being consistently followed in Indian media. There are even editorials about Sarah Palin. Choosing Ms. Palin as his running mate is nothing short of recklessness, opines the Kolkata-based daily, The Telegraph. The Times of India comments that Palin served up the domestic red meat for a mostly white audience.

Novelist Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is not surprised by the attention the race is getting. Indians love politics, and this is one helluva race. The American election enjoys narrative muscle, and neither Obama nor Palin are afraid of flexing their abs, quips Shanghvi. The interest is there because the story has meat on the bone.

Its now like a high at the end of the day, says Swati Ramanathan, who runs the NGO Janaagraha along with her husband, Ramesh. We rush home to see what happened. What did Palin say? What did Stephanopolous say? We dont get ABC, NBC, Fox here. But thank god for YouTube.

The Ramanathans first got interested in politics when they lived in the United States during the 1992 Clinton campaign. Seeing people volunteer in campaigns was amazing. It ennobled politics, says Ramesh. It never happened in India.

Now their NGO tries to promote civic engagement. Its just launched its own national youth vote mobilization. We said if Obama can do it with the youth vote in America, why not us, says Swati Ramanathan.

Others are following the election because it affects their pocketbooks. Most of the Fortune 500 companies now have a presence in India. More Indians are doing business with America than ever before. One of my family members who manages a BPO (business process outsourcing) is watching very closely what Obama said about outsourcing, says Vir Kashyap who grew up in New York and now lives in Bangalore. He regularly gets quizzed about the differences between the parties.

Its also about timing says Jug Suraiya, associate editor with The Times of India. Indias urban middle class has always been fascinated with America. Now with the nuclear deal and America finally correcting its tilt towards Pakistan, there is high hope that America is ready to really do business with India.

But there is some trepidation, too. The locus of the war on terror is steadily moving eastward, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan, says Siddharth Varadarajan, associate editor of The Hindu newspaper. No matter who wins, there is a sense that Islamabad is increasingly going to be in Washington's cross-hairs, he says. Obama has been more strident on this, but nobody here believes McCain will be any different.

One thing is clear though India and the United States are good friends these days and neither McCain nor Obama want to rock that boat. Corporate India is a little leery of Obamas statements about outsourcing, but the real areas to watch out for, says Varadarajan, are how the new President relates to Moscow and Beijing. Right now, the improvement in U.S.-India relations has not come bundled with any great pressure on India to alter or modulate its relations with Moscow and Beijing, says Vardarajan. But that could change if Washingtons relationship with Moscow took a nosedive, or it suddenly cozies up to Beijing.

But most Indians are not weighing the foreign policy implications, or even worrying if a President Obama might push through a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and pressure India to accede to it. In fact, liberal Indians are so enamored of Obama, they sometimes forget it is President Bush who really stuck his neck out to deliver the nuclear deal. For others he may be a dreadful President, but not for us, wrote Karan Thapar in The Hindustan Times. For India hes proved to be the best theres ever been!

But though Bush brought India in from the nuclear cold, Obamas reaping the benefit among Indias urban upper middle class, especially after he revealed that he learned to cook a mean daal during his student days, says Jug Suraiya. (It was actually a Pakistani roommate who taught him.)

In a country where 41 percent of the population is under 34, Obama is inspiring, especially for young emerging politicians. But theres also an element of long distance liberalism, says Suraiya. He thinks many of those rooting for a black man to become President of the United States would shudder at the thought of the backward caste leader Mayawati becoming Prime Minister of India. Mayawati is too up close and personal for liberal comfort, wrote Suraiya in a column for The Times of India.

Obamas fine, hes safely far away. No African American is going to pop up in ones sitting room with son-in-law aspirations.

Meanwhile in Shahs sitting room, the discussion has moved on to deadlines for registering to vote via absentee ballots Vote From Abroad as well as what they are going to do on election night. Muniers Intel assigment is ending, and the Shahs will be back in Oregon by November 4.

Im actually a little disappointed, Sara says with a rueful smile. Im sure someone in Portland will have an election night event. But it would be really cool to be here. I am going to miss it.

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