Events in the United States mark a grim beginning
What just happened in America can happen in many other parts of the world, including India. On January 6, a frenzied mob of Republican hoodlums -- domestic terrorists to be more accurate -- vandalized Capitol Hill and disrupted a joint session of the US Congress, which was in the midst of certifying the Electoral College verdict of the 2020 presidential election.
As elected representatives and their staff sought cover behind barricaded doors and in safe rooms, an otherwise routine procedure was truncated, threatening the peaceful transfer of power. Mercifully, Congress reconvened later in the evening and certified Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. I say mercifully because given the atypical American electoral system, the results could have been the opposite, Biden’s electoral college or the popular vote majority notwithstanding.
Anticipating the unthinkable
That something like this could happen was not unforeseen. Many Americans had feared it. But the daring of the Republican goons was perhaps unthinkable even to them. The phenomenon called Trumpism has been in the making since 2008, when the country elected its first Black president, Barack Obama.
Many thinking Americans have tried to sensitize their nation to the perils that engulf American democracy, but their voices have been drowned out by incessant Trumpist lies and the cacophony of social media that amplifies them. As an Indian, I am only too aware of these perils because our leaders too have been caught in the spell.
The Howdy Modi show in Houston (September 2019) and the Namaste Trump extravaganza in Ahmedabad (February 2020) refuse to fade from memory. The timing of the latter in particular was utterly crazy. It happened against the background of the first reported Covid case in Kerala on January 27, 2020, almost a month ahead of the Ahmedabad event.
It must be embarrassing, therefore, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be reminded of slogans that were chanted by his fans at the Howdy Modi event, none more preposterous than Abki-bar Trump Sarkar (this time, a Trump government). It is plausible that the Indian flag that was spotted among the January 6 vandals was carried by someone belonging to the outfit “Hindus for Trump.”
China and India
This is not the first time that illiberalism has overtaken America. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, America was swept by the phenomenon called “Red Scare.” It happened again in the early fifties, when the “fall” of China to the Communists destabilized American society and triggered a virulent witch-hunt under McCarthyism.
But let it be noted that both those moments were driven in part by proximate foreign events. The present moment, however, is essentially homegrown and hence all the more worrying. The spectre of a Chinese challenge to America’s exceptionalism may have been advertised for easier acceptability, but at the subcutaneous level, the true driver of January 6 is a resurgent white supremacism that fearmongers and peddles hate against Muslims, Black people, refugees, and non-white immigrants.
Here too there is an uncanny similarity with the Indian situation. All the categories that apply in the US case collapse into just one in India: Muslim bashing. Pakistan fits into this narrative wonderfully well because it is an Islamic Republic with a history of enmity with India.
Otherwise, today China is a much bigger threat, particularly after it has illegally occupied thousands of square kilometres of Indian territory. But the Indian government maintains a curious silence on the issue, avoiding even an acknowledgement of this reality. Could it be that there is no Muslim factor that can be sold domestically?
On the contrary, the Chinese are ruthlessly suppressing Uighurs in Xinjiang (no doubt to the unbridled glee of many Hindutva fanatics). Let us therefore be clear that in both America and India, it is the respective right-wing forces that are calling the shots.
The bogey of foreign danger feeds into the narrative, not the other way around.
Democracy could still prevail
But all said and done, American democracy has a better chance of bouncing back because its democratic tradition is much more deeply rooted. Notably, in spite of all the threats unleashed by the Trump administration, his lies have been meticulously recorded by sections of the American press and routinely shared with the public.
The Washington Post noted that by July 9, 2020, Trump had lied or made false claims to his countrymen as many as 20,000 times. India has no such system of accounting. This leaves us dependent upon occasional surveys done by concerned independent journalists and others, which have limited reach and are far more easily smeared by the government.
The Hindu ombudsman AS Panneerselvan wrote recently that according to the FreeSpeechCollective (an initiative that monitors state excesses against journalists and other democratic actors), India’s record during 2010-2020 has been deplorable. Out of the 154 cases documented by FreeSpeechCollective, as many as 73 took place in BJP-ruled states. BJP-NDA-ruled states accounted for a further 30 cases. The leader in the pack was UP, which alone accounted for 29 cases.
There is yet another danger, which one can think of as an Indian spin on filibustering: The tyranny of sub-judicial paperwork. The Delhi Police filed a 17,000-page charge-sheet against the alleged rioters (February 2020), many of whom were allegedly active in the anti-CAA/NRC protests, whose only “crime” was to demonstrate peacefully and demand that the State adhere to the Indian constitution.
It is hardly surprising that no judge would be able to look into these voluminous documents during bail hearings and hence would choose the easy option: “Bail denied.” The accused would then languish indefinitely in jail and, barring family members, friends, and lawyers, soon be forgotten by the rest of us.
To make matters worse, even court judgments are sometimes so lengthy and their language so obtuse that the average individual is left at a loss. Let me quote here from the legal luminary Upendra Baxi. Although the specific context for his remarks was different, they remain universally relevant.
Commenting upon the nullifying verdict of the British Supreme Court in the case of Boris Johnson proroguing Parliament in September 2019, Baxi wrote: “Written in elegant and firm language, and accessible to all, the judgment is very brief (71 paragraphs and 24 pages and heard only for three days).
The judicial courage, craft, and contention have a common core in India and the UK -- judicial review has its basis primarily in safeguarding people’s basic rights but in the Indian context, the end is achieved by a prolixity of judicial opinions addressed to multiple constituencies and the high art of speaking to the future. May be, judicial verbosity emanates in India from the verbosity of the written constitution itself?”
One final point. Since time immemorial, society has had to contend with some of politics’ ugliest features: Manufacturing of false narratives; making fake promises; telling blatant lies; selling dreams of a glorious past; and leaders who have the communicative skill to harness them to keep the masses in thrall.
In our social-media-driven era, the possibilities and the dangers have only multiplied. In America, Trump and Republican propagandists successfully mobilized social media to sell the idea that White America was in danger.
In India, social media is being used to sell the idea of India’s greatness as the Vishwaguru, the wisdom giver of the world. The popular Hindi stand-up comedian Sampat Saral is right when he says that India would not have attained independence in 1947 had there been social media then.
In a screenshot that has gone viral, Trump states: “I want to see Biden in prison.” To this Biden retorts, “Why does Trump think I would visit him in prison?” The clever word play reminded me of a contrasting situation from mid-nineteenth century America. Inspired by the lifelong abolitionist Henry David Thoreau, many Americans partook in civil disobedience to protest the Mexican-American War (1846-48) (incidentally, several decades later Mahatma Gandhi would go on to borrow heavily from Thoreau’s ideas).
Incensed by Thoreau’s opposition to the war, the American government imprisoned him. In jail he was visited by his friend and fellow philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who asked him, “What are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied: “What are you doing out there?”
Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. E-mail: [email protected]