I have one indelible memory from election night 2008.
A gay man was standing outside the grand ballroom of the St Francis hotel in San Francisco where the Democratic Party’s election result watching jamboree was in full swing in front of giant television screens. He had one finger in his ear to block out the bedlam inside, and an iPhone clamped to the other.
“Honey,” he hollered into the phone. “I cried. When Obama spoke I cried.”
It was a bittersweet moment for him and many others in the ballroom. As Obama was giving his victory speech in Chicago, voters in California were narrowly rejecting same-sex marriage. But the man on the phone was not crying for that loss. He was moved to tears by the jolt of possibility that rippled through the country when the televisions called the election. When Barack Obama strode onto the stage to give his acceptance speech a friend messaged me from Mumbai. It was as if there was a kind of whoosh heard all over the world – the sound of millions of people, who had been holding their breath, finally exhaling.
I had not meant to be at that ballroom. I was generally not that interested in being in a political crush whatever its denomination. But this was one election that you just could not watch alone in your living room and then turn off the television and head to bed. If you were in America on election night 2008, you just had to be outside, whether you were a voter or not.
“Let’s go to the St Francis,” I told a friend. “Even if Obama wins again in 2012 it will never be like this time again.”
It was a chilly night. I think it even rained. But as I walked down the streets of downtown San Francisco, there were long lines at the pizza joint. The crowds at Union Square were hollering and shouting though the night was getting cold. People smiled at strangers, giving each other a thumbs up. Everyone was twittering, texting, calling. Next day was a working day but no one cared.
This election I will be watching from thousands of miles away. I set my clock alarm to watch the debates. Now I’ll set it again to watch the results, bleary-eyed, in my pajamas. There will be election-watching parties organised by diehard expats, perhaps even with bagels and cream cheese to try and create a little make-believe bubble of Americana. But like the Durga Puja celebrations of NRIs in American suburbs they will have the feeling of rituals-in-a-box, pre-packaged and trying a little too hard. It will be morning in India and the world outside the bubble will not care.
Obama in 2008 was making history, not just in America but around the world. In 2012 it’s just an American election whether Obama wins or Romney pulls a surprise. It is front page news because it’s happening in a superpower but the importance the world places on these elections sometimes feels a little misplaced in the post Cold War world. Critics complain that it doesn’t matter who wins — Obama’s record on civil liberties is disappointing. The Mideast process has not inched forward. In India the elections are analysed in more mundane terms — outsourcing, Pakistan, trade deals. Who is better for India — Democrats or Republicans? Or is India so important now that it doesn’t really matter who sits in the White House?
But still Swapan Dasgupta tweets out “If I was an American my vote would have gone to Mitt Romney in this election.” Or take my friend Harsha, a gay activist in San Francisco who wears his preferences on his sleeve, or at on least his Facebook status.
I am 30 years old and in my lifetime I have not had an opportunity to vote. Though I am not a US citizen, I have worked this past weekend, knocking doors in Nevada and calling voters to make sure we re-elect President Obama.
Why do people who have no votes in the election care when barely 50 percent of American voters do?
Having watched the elections up close in America and now from far away in India, I think it’s not just about the candidates but also about the institutions. It’s about a certain faith in the process even when that faith hangs on a chad. We think of elections as being rigged in Russia, rubber stamped in Africa, bought in India. But it gives some hope that every four years ordinary Americans have the chance to throw the most powerful man in the world out of office and they often do. Or elect a man who came from nowhere, with no dynastic privileges or huge corporate coffers, named Barack Hussein Obama. For many of us, especially middle-class Indians, who grow up thoroughly disengaged from the political process, that’s what’s eye-opening — the feeling that the aam aadmi holds the levers.
“It’s out of my hands now,” Obama said in his final rally in Iowa this week. “It’s in yours. All of it depends on what you do.” Just reading it gave me goosebumps. In the deep hush that follows weeks of frenzied and rancorous campaigning and the relentless din of TV ads and robo-calls, you can finally hear the ticking heart of democracy.
When I watched the elections from India, I always thought the action was in Washington DC in the White House. But in 2008 I realised it was really in little basement garages turned into makeshift polling booths. To be honest, I was a little flummoxed. This didn’t feel like history in the making.
I was looking at a sign that said Polling Place stuck on an orange traffic cone. Inside the garage, American democracy was at work alongside two pink little girl bikes, a microwave oven on its side, and a car seat (also in pink). It was 7:30 in the morning and people had brought their kids, grandkids, even a small fluffy white dog.
“Why is this an important election?” asked a little curly-haired boy.
“Because we are electing the President,” said his grandmother.
Indeed. That must feel special, I thought. It’s a feeling every country aspires to. And some of us outside America understand it better than many Americans do.