By Geeta Padmanabhan
At 7 am at the Taj Coromandel, Chennai, the two Clive rooms were packed. Students from at least half-a-dozen schools milled around. A long queue stood in front of the mock booth where with two clicks you could vote for one of the two presidential candidates.
No one had any doubt who would win this “mini” election.
Another line stood in front of the candidates’ cut-outs for free photographs. The longest line was of course in front of the coffee-and-biscuit counter. It looked like everyone – which meant a fair representation of Chennai population – invited by the US Consulate in Chennai had decided to honor it.
There were balloons everywhere. Huge sheets of blue and red cloth covered the ceiling. One wall had posters on democracy and election (all strictly neutral) by students of the Consulate’s outreach program. The far wall was lined with officials checking poll trends and results in their laptops. Chairs faced the two large screens, one for live coverage and the other for graphics. TV crews from every news channel tripped around shooting anything in sight. Cameras clicked, scribes scribbled. The one person who was bravely enjoying the excitement and noise was Mrs. Simkin, wife of the Consul General Mr. Andrew Simkin, in an Uncle Sam cap and a star-and-stripes dress.
“Is there enhanced interest in this election or have you invited a lot of people?” I shouted at Mr. Kaplan, Public Affairs officer. “Both,” he said, keeping his voice steady. I heard the phrases African-American, woman VP, long campaign, Indo-US relations and “wherever I went in Chennai people asked me about the elections. We thought we would give the students a peep into the democratic process in the US and allow them to make comparisons. We had a quiz, organized a presidential debate and invited students from the participating schools.” He smiled. “We hoped they would circulate and leave. Not happening.”
7:30 am: a new speaker was talking of Indian American candidates. Information was pouring out everywhere. Fliers were being handed out. Exit polls, Indian-American candidates, advanced build-up, reception to VIPs last night. Students discussed dollar values, IT industry, the job market after the election. Swarming crowds surrounded anyone with white skin and fired questions. “I’m German,” said an exasperated woman. “I don’t know how the voting is done.”
8 am: More results, more speeches. “60 seats in the senate is a must,” said the next speaker, “for the President to get his policies passed without much difficulty. Notable reps have held on.” More people were piling in. Even standing room was hard to find. By this time, Obama had voted. The clip showing him, his wife and daughter went on and on. There was a big surge of people in the TV part of the hall.
8:45 am: The noise levels were uncomfortably high. The screaming NDTV anchor reporting from Grant Park couldn’t get a word through in this crushing room. The talk on the popular vote not matching the electoral college votes sounded like a mime. The vice-consul, Ms. Ariel Howard decided to do something. She went up to the mike, got the TV sound muted and said, “For those students who have mock-voted and taken their picture, the door is open. Outside, you will see the stairs to go to the entrance.” No one moved.
9 am: History was in the air. “137 to 85” shouted the announcer. The voting pattern analysis was now on – state by state, African-American voters, Latino voters, previous election voters, new voters, in just how many ways can electors be split? I managed to talk to Arya, an absentee voter and daughter of dancer Anita Ratnam. “I was born in New York, so I can always vote though I live here,” she said. No surprise who she voted for. “McCain means continuity; I heard Obama talking on war. He has a promising agenda. He will help the middle class.”
9:15 am: The applause started. Ohio for Obama, Virginia for Obama. I moved to the coffee area and cornered the vice-consul. She predicted, “The young in India will draw enthusiasm for participation in the elections. Youthful energy in India is waiting to be unleashed.” Waiting? It was already there. “Voting numbers are higher, not too many glitches. We want all this to be passed on to India.” She moved to the lectern for her lecture on Ashwin Madia and Bobby Jindal. “I’m a Louisianian,” she thundered. “Jindal has done remarkable work for us.” Applause broke out.
9:30 am: Half of Chennai was cramped into the TV area. NDTV had made its choice. CNN came on and announced “Obama elected president” and below in smaller letters, “CNN Projection.” Virginia went to Obama. The noise was deafening. It matched the levels of jubilation on-screen in faraway New York.
9:45am:The shouting suddenly subsided. The students moved toward the walls and those seated hushed down. “McCain will have to concede,” whispered the gentleman next to me. McCain appeared, delivered his speech. Incredibly, the packed hall listened in total silence. Once, just once, when he thanked Sarah Palin for her support, a white American photographer booed. “We make history” said the elderly senator and the crowd gave him a loud applause. “Our politicians should learn from him,” sighed the neighbour. “What a gracious speech.”
No coffee, no sandwiches left. We waited for Obama’s speech. The clapping lasted a full minute when he appeared with Michelle Obama and kids. Hey wait! She’s wearing black with a splash of red in the middle! In Chennai the colours have unpleasant associations. Obama spoke, every sentence was punctuated by applause. “Who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer” (clap), “friend of 16 years” (clap). The reference to Ann Cooper was lost on the Chennai audience, but they caught the refrain: yes we can. In the end, the clapping was louder, screams followed.
Conversations resumed, cameras clicked, Mr. Simkin was interviewed by CNN-IBN. The students began to disperse. On my way out, I asked Mr. Kaplan, “How would you describe your reaction?” He said, “Happiness, pride in our democracy and relief that the long campaign has ended.” Diplomatic.