US President Donald Trump might make some more attempts to subvert democracy till January 20, when President-elect Joe Biden takes over
There is a WhatsApp message doing the rounds: “Americans recently found out that it’s much easier for them to change presidents in other countries than in their own nation.” So, how does the largest democracy, India, compare with the oldest one, the US, on practising democracy?
All through the presidential campaign, outgoing US President Donald Trump had declared that he would not move out of the White House even if he were defeated. His rival, President-elect Joe Biden, retorted that he (Trump) would be escorted out by the military. But no one expected an attack on the Capitol Hill, which is regarded as the temple of democracy in the US. Trump has spent the last two months refusing to concede defeat and claiming mass voter fraud. But the worst was his instigation of the Capitol Hill riots. According to the US media, Trump began his most infamous Wednesday morning making a last-ditch effort to hold on to power with a tweet, asking his Vice-President Mike Pence to intervene and overturn Joe Biden’s election. Pence publicly issued a letter in the afternoon declaring that he would not illegally intervene in the Congress, minutes before convening the joint session of the US Congress to certify the Electoral College. Trump addressed his supporters about 1 PM and declared: “We will never give up, we will never concede,” and announced “We’re going to the Capitol.” Trump drove his supporters into a frenzy. However, he did not join them in the riots that followed in the Capitol Hill and went back to the White House and watched the destruction on television. At the end of Wednesday, after the US Congress confirmed Biden’s victory, Trump declared: “Even though I disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless, there will be an orderly transition on January 20.”
There are many reasons for Trump’s atrocious behaviour. First of all, he is a bad loser and reluctant to admit defeat. Even in 2016, Trump had declared that he would accept the poll results only if he won or else he would resort to legal action. Second, now that he has lost the presidency, he would lose all federal protection against prosecution. Third, he needs his followers to be his support base in case he makes a presidential bid in 2024. He is also depending on the 73 million who voted for him this time. It is speculated that Trump has made up his mind to contest the next elections and wants to play the role of a martyr. Fourth, he also has to keep the section of Republicans who support him in the party, happy. This contemptible attack on the US democracy makes one compare it to the largest democracy, India, that has gone through many trials and tribulations in the last 73 years. India has seen a smooth transfer of power 17 times. The electorate, too, has become mature over the decades since Independence and has punished authoritarian rulers. Even late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who imposed an Emergency in 1975 worked within the system, which bears little direct parallels to the current situation in the US.
After declaring an Emergency under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Indira blamed the “hidden hand” of the Central Intelligence Agency for internal unrest. The late President Pranab Mukherjee, who had been a Congressman all his life, talked about the Emergency period in his book ‘The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years.’ He described the period thus: “Suspension of fundamental rights and political activity (including trade union activity), large-scale arrests of political leaders and activists, Press censorship and extending the life of legislatures by not conducting elections were some instances of Emergency adversely affecting the interests of the people. Congress and Indira Gandhi had to pay a heavy price for this misadventure.” The Emergency officially ended on March 23, 1977. The Congress came down from 352 seats to just 189 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1977 elections. The Janata Party came to power. However, once the people’s anger subsided a subdued Indira came back to power in 1980 when the Janata Government collapsed. Since then, her successors have confined themselves to the boundaries of the Constitution. Even in States where cult leaders like Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa or RJD leader Lalu Prasad ruled in an authoritarian manner, they did so within the confines of the Constitution. So, to that extent, India has been lucky that democracy survives unhindered.
The US democracy got a major jolt on Wednesday and it is not over yet as Trump might make some more attempts to subvert democracy till January 20, when Biden takes over. The framers of the US Constitution would never have expected such shameful behaviour by a sitting President. In the words of Bob Woodward: “When history is written, Trump’s failure to heed the warnings he was given is going to be probably the story of the failure of the American presidency and the American system to nominate and elect someone who responsibly would carry out the duties of President.”
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)