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Following American politics

Our star-spangled banter


CHEERING FOR OBAMA: (Above) Celebrations at Hard Rock Cafe in Worli, Mumbai after Obama's re-election;(left) a Democrat supporter at Habanero, a pub in Bangalore

Thanks to new media, a growing number of Indians are far more familiar with the nitty-gritty of the US political scene rather than the Indian one.

It's Tuesday evening in the US and Wednesday morning in India. President Barack Obama has delivered his State of the Union Address(SOTU) and Republican Senator Marco Rubio has provided the official Republican response. Sunil Reddy, a 38-yearold manager in a tech firm, sits glued to his laptop. He is watching Obama's speech using his browser. Another tab has The Guardian's SOTU liveblog open. A third tab has blogger Andrew Sullivan's reactions to the state of the union loaded. A fourth tab tracks Twitter commentary for the hashtag "#rubiowater" (a reference to the internet meme and the animated gifs that exploded online after Mark Rubio's lunge for a bottle of water midway through his State of the Union response ). Yet another has The New York Times' infographic on the frequency distribution of keywords like "jobs", "taxation" and "Afghanistan" in the speech.

"It's funny, "says Reddy, "I've never really spent much time in the US - I've only visited for short periods of time, and different places each time - but I'm obsessed with what goes on there. A part of this is because the quantity and quality of information available is very high. It's not just the newspapers and the TV channels, some of the blogging and commentary sites have a high level of quality and snark. "
Reddy is just one of a growing number of Indians - mostly young, connected professionals who follow the twists and turns of American politics the way others follow their favourite soap operas. A part of the attraction is the packaging of American politics, especially during the presidential elections. Conventions are followed, debates are watched on youtube, policy positions are discussed, and on election night, TVs, twitter and newsfeeds are permanently on.

One immediate reason that events in the US matter is that some legislation affects the Internet. Legislation like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) and the newly resurrected CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) are cases in point. SOPA and PIPA caused widespread online protests on January 18th, 2012, when sites like Wikipedia and Reddit took part in a blackout, before the bills were dropped in Congress.

Some of the interest in American politics is the result of a significant number of Indians returning after stints in the US. Narayan Ramachandran is a former investment banker who spent 18 years in the US. Though he is back in India to work on social initiatives, he describes his involvement with American politics as "reasonably intense". He follows American politics because he has lived more than half his adult life there. Ramachandran tracks politics mostly at the national level, but says he also follows what happens in Florida. Bharati Jacob is an alumnus of Wharton School, the business school at the University of Pennsylvania. After working at Northwest Airlines, she returned to India and is a co-founder of Seedfund, an early stage venture capital fund. Jacob describes herself as a "Democrat (with both a capital D and a small D)" and she favours Obama and Hilary Clinton. Both Jacob and Ramachandran follow current and proposed legislation on areas as diverse as gun control and negotiations to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" (the result of spending cuts and the expiry of Bush-era tax cuts which could have led to another recession in the world's largest economy).

The parallels between American and Indian politics are another source of interest. "Both countries are plural and federal by construction. Both countries have written constitutions. Both have center-state issues.

Special interests play a big role in both places, " says Ramachandran. "Politicians across India and the US are very articulate. In India, they may speak in a local language but can be as articulate as American ones, " says Jacob. "You have one party that positions itself as minority friendly and in opposition is a party that favours the religious fundamentalists. You have a gridlocked legislature where posturing is more important than addressing issues. Both blocs are hand in glove with big business. I'd say there are a number of similarities, " says Reddy. Not everyone agrees, though. Abhijit Dutta, a self professed political junkie whose interest in American politics is "huge and unhealthy, from an Indian perspective" says that there are virtually no parallels between India and the US. "Even their idiots are more clearly identifiable because of the clarity of their positions, despite the weakness of their data. Indian politics is for novices, from the perspective of statecraft. But our politicians know exactly what they are doing. They just don't care for statecraft, " he says.

Most Indian followers of American politics prefer the Democrats. Dutta says "As a blind follower of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, is it any wonder that I lean heavily Democrat. " Jacob describes herself as a "Democrat (with both a capital D and a small D)". Ramachandran says that he is a "fiscal conservative and a social moderate. " Unfortunately, neither party has both fiscal conservatism and social moderation as its platform, not since the days of Bill Clinton, he says.

The Reddys, Jacobs, Duttas and Ramachandrans get their political fixes, where else, on the internet. Favoured websites are those of prominent newspapers: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post;magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker and a range of websites from The Huffington Post to propublica. org. Indians form significant audiences for many of the world's most popular websites. But it's not just the big news sites that attract Indians. Daily Kos, a liberal website which focuses on influencing the Democratic Party has its second highest audience from India. So does redstate. com, a hardcore conservative blog.

"Ultimately, what happens in the US affects the rest of the world, directly or indirectly. So it's good to stay informed, see what both sides are saying," says Reddy.

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