All this is masked by an oscillation between ridicule for the campaign, which has coalesced on the quality of the candidates, and criticism, which has arisen from the fundamental issue of whether the campaign process itself is fit for the purpose of electing a leader who will have consequences globally.
This is not to say that the critique is unjustified. Yet it is dwarfed by what the campaign has achieved. That is to disclose to the world the policy arcs of the candidates. What has become clear is that for New Delhi, Donald Trump will serve Indian needs better. Moreover, careful study of the campaign also permits the formulation of policy by New Delhi towards the next president, whoever it may be. Both these issues become apparent if the campaign process, during which so much has been said, is unpacked for what it truly is.
The defining features of the campaign are the best, and arguably the worst, of the US: democracy and, ironically, vacuous entertainment, or what has been derided this year as 'trivial' campaigning. Yet this moralistic accusation misses a crucial factor: the strengthening of democracy. Its outstanding characteristic is openness. So democratic is the US system that practically every aspect of the candidates, including the personal, has been revealed for the electorate to judge.
That is to be commended, for the beneficiaries are not just American voters, but the world. It was not always so. The degree of openness and scrutiny that is dismissed by naysayers as 'trivial' arose after World War II. Till then presidential nominees emerged from an opaque process dictated by the whims and backroom deals of members of the Congress and party bigwigs. That began to change in the 1970s when the primary system - of party delegates electing their presidential candidate - grew in importance. The selection process became, if not totally open, at least translucent. This also meant candidates now had to pin their colours to the mast. The next step towards clarity was due to a very mundane matter of organization. States needed more time to organize themselves and so began to hold their primaries earlier. In practice, of course, potential candidates are out raising their profile and funds long beforehand.
The added benefit of this twofold change - bolstering primaries and conducting them earlier - was that in addition to explaining their politics, candidates also had to explain themselves. This is why we get detailed insights into the thinking, attitudes and actions of the candidates. In short, then, the benefactor of all this is democracy, for what has been strengthened is the core idea of openness and accountability.
Nevertheless, the wealth of criticism saying that the campaign degenerated into triviality suggests that it demands further attention. The 'trivial' is really the opportunity to glean deep insights into candidates. Such insights are often warped by the candidates' need to remain in the public consciousness. This explains the carnivalesque quality of the campaign. That is also why the utterances of candidates cannot be dissociated from their need to entertain. If religion was "the opiate of the masses", today entertainment is the means to harness the masses to a politician.
In spite of the practical need to entertain, it is possible to discern the nominees' foreign policy styles and objectives. This is Clinton's redoubt, given her history. But that history also discloses misrepresentation and a troublingly hawkish foreign policy that cannot be to India's advantage. In February, Clinton took the credit for a recent Syrian ceasefire. She claimed that at its kernel was her role in 2012 during the efforts of the former United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to negotiate a ceasefire. However, at the time she was one of the reasons for Annan's failure. Clinton wanted an offensive strategy against Syria and its leader, Bashar al-Assad. He was to be toppled and replaced by a pro-US leader. Clinton's aim was regime change. Peace was sacrificed on its altar. Later, her hawkish stance on Syria was thwarted by President Barack Obama.
Nothing so revolutionary as regime change would ever be contemplated for India, of course, but what Clinton's history suggests is that she would have a multiplier effect on the pressure that the US exerts on India. The WikiLeaks cables reveal that during the most significant recent negotiations between India and the US, which resulted in the Indo-US 123 Agreement, American officials and politicians repeatedly tried to corral India to change its policies on various matters, from the economic to the geopolitical. This in spite of repeated explanations by Pranab Mukherjee and his bureaucrats.
What about Trump? Peeling away the layers of entertainment reveals a change in his attitude, which suggests that he is far more open to learning about the world and being accommodated by it than trying to mould it. This is quite evident in his reversal on Israel. Trump began by stating he was neutral on Israel's relationship with Palestine, but has now gone so far as to endorse occupation of the seized territories. An advisor to Trump states that this is because he did not know much about the issue, and has changed his mind after learning more about it. That is to be commended, for it shows Trump is not a blind follower of ideology intent on forcing his way on the world, but capable of changing himself.
Nevertheless, concerns abound about his claims in his book, Time To Get Tough, that he would slap a 15 per cent tax on US companies that outsourced to countries like India. Similarly, he has promised to impose a 35 per cent tax on Ford cars made in Mexico. On the face of it, this does not bode well for Indians. Ford recently brought online a factory in Gujarat that will export cars abroad. But much of this rhetoric is neutered by the very nature of the campaign system, whose fundamental democratic values demand sensationalism. Furthermore, the threat to Indian exports to and labour in the US is lessened by Trump's demonstrated ability to learn on the job and change his mind. Further evidence of this is his reaching out to minorities in the US, not least Indian migrants.
All that remains then are the personal foibles of the candidates. Sadly, for every charge Trump faces there is a corresponding charge for Clinton. This is neither the time nor the place to detail the merits of the candidates on personal grounds. The only bearing such matters have on an Indian perspective is that they speak more about the quality of the candidates the US is able to muster than about the electoral process. Indeed, Indians ought to be thankful to American democracy for illuminating the kind of people who are in the fray.
Crucially, all of this - the further democratization of US democracy and the resulting knowledge we have of the candidates - permits India to formulate its strategy towards the US with a certainty that no other election process affords. The next steps are clear. If it is to be President Trump. then India must prepare to convince him of our case, given that he is not very knowledgeable but open to suggestion. That is something Manmohan Singh achieved with spectacular success with George W. Bush, who was even more ignorant of India to start with. The eventuality of a President Clinton, however, demands a totally different approach. If she secures the White House, then India must be prepared for the full and efficient onslaught of a US state department ideologically driven to sacrifice global peace and prosperity for American interests.