In their third and final debate this week, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry will turn to what Americans quaintly call "domestic" issues. Yet foreign interest couldn't be keener, especially in South Asia.
For the region's online media, outsourcing of American jobs rivals Iraq as the central issue of the fiercely fought U.S. campaign. Kerry's plan to offer tax cuts to stop jobs from moving overseas has probably received more thorough coverage in New Dehli than in some battleground states. The outsourcing debate in the Indian press illuminates how difficult it now is to separate domestic U.S. politics and global economic arrangements.
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According to pundits, Kerry, and to a lesser extent Bush, are trying to finesse the complex reality of outsourcing. While Americans lament the loss of service jobs, Indians and Malaysians welcome the growth of what is known as the BPO sector (Business Process Offshoring).
The Indian media first started paying attention to the Massachussetts senator last January, when the Democratic candidate began to criticize U.S. corporations for moving their service departments to call centers in India.
Kerry received front page coverage in India when he said "You can't stop all outsourcing," during the second presidential debate last week.
"I have never promised that," Kerry said. "I'm not going to because that would be pandering. You can't. But what you can do is create a fair playing field."
The notion that Americans are treated unfairly in the global labor market is not a popular one in India.
On the left, Sandeep Verma, writes in the news weekly OutlookIndia.com, that globalization is a U.S.-led system of "outright hypocrisy" that is unfair to working people in all countries.
On the right, the Statesman blasted Kerry for what they called "mealy-mouthedly populist assaults on that inevitable accompaniment of globalisation -- the outsourcing of jobs. "
Across the spectrum, there is resentment of American rhetoric that transforms the creation of jobs in India into a threat to the United States.
"Outsourcing" has become the swearword of the 2004 American election campaign," says the Times of India. First, Kerry accused Bush of "outsourcing" the job of capturing Osama bin Laden to Afghan warlords instead of letting American troops do it. Then Bush hit back, saying Kerry's suggestion that the United States had to seek global approval for its actions was a "dangerous outsourcing" of American security. The way Bush and Kerry use the term makes it "almost certain" that Americans will have a negative view of outsourcing, says the Times.
It's not merely the negative connotation that outsourcing has taken on in political debate, but there is also a feeling that the economic realities of outsourcing favor Asia.
Last week, India's finance minister dismissed Kerry's opposition to outsourcing as "pre-election rhetoric," according to the Indian Express newsweekly.
U.S. businesses understand the benefits and values of outsourcing, the minister said, "For every dollar outsourced by the US business, it gets back five to ten dollars." This view was tacitly encouraged by none other than Strobe Talbott, head of the Brookings Institution and former top State Department official in the Clinton administration, who paid a visit to New Delhi last month.
According to the New Kerala news site, Talbott said that India need not worry about the controversy over business process outsourcing "getting out of hand" if Kerry was elected. Talbott said "Kerry understood 'the economic good reason of trading through outsourcing as a necessity despite his political opposition,' and, added, that on the advice of his economists, he had left enough room to change his policy."
"While outsourcing and job losses remain hot-button issues in the US presidential race -- with both candidates indicating they want to apply the brakes -- the Malaysian information technology outsourcing market is set to grow even further," predicts the Star in Kuala Lumpur.
America's outsourcing debate tends to play in Bush's favor in India, says Aakar Patel, columnist for Midday Mumbai, a conservative tabloid.
"Given the hatred of George W Bush and his conservative ministers, it is not surprising that non-Americans should prefer to see a less warlike regime in Washington," he writes. "But what about global states and governments?"
India's new center-left government actually leans toward Bush, he argues.
"Unlike Kerry, Bush supports or is openly neutral to outsourcing jobs to India," Patel says. "Though the liberal parties have taken power in Delhi, the logic of the India-US relation does not change."
In short, while Indian officials may find Bush's Iraq policies unilateralist and distasteful, they also believe his reelection would serve Indian interests more than a Kerry victory. Public opinion polls confirm that India is one of the few countries in the world, other than the United States, where Bush might win more votes than Kerry.