Lessons from American Presidential Elections

Part 1 of a two-part series


President-elect Joe Biden had centred his whole strenuous campaign around the theme, “battle for the soul of America”. It not only implied defence of America’s constitutional democracy but far more, the vision of founding fathers as well as the basis of the American message to the world. The basic values of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as well precious equality which has so far been a promise and hope, constitute that message. 

Lately the soul of America has been under sustained attack of deadly germs leading to serious morbidity. Though many deluded people thought they found their external manifestations in migrants and militant Islamism (the latter to a great extent nurtured by myopic American military strategy) the sickness stemmed from much deeper maladies that like a virus simulated an organic ingredient of the system to find an entry and act to undermine the entire structure. The aggressive disruptions and distortions outgoing President Trump inflicted upon democratic norms and conventions and the arbitrary and wayward mangling of institutions have no precedent in American history. And fortunately, from day one of his rule conscious sections of American people were alarmed by the conduct of their President soon to be labelled as ‘the most dangerous President in the history of America’.              

It can escape nobody’s notice that here in this country we too are now in the throes of a life-and-death struggle for the soul of Indian democracy. We have been besieged by a similar regime of post-truths, brazen lies, suborning of institutions and breath-taking manoeuvres to rob us of our liberty under the banner of glorious national honour. The disease has made much advance and the antibodies have been either deactivated or severely weakened by the wily virus. But so far if its advance has been stopped in some fronts, in some others it has made irresistible headway. While in America, the press has been at the forefront of the struggle, here with a few solitary exceptions it is in headlong retreat.          

We may take some lessons from the American experience. While drawing a complete parallel will be too facile the resemblance in the situation is too striking to ignore. Let us also take note that America is yet to recover completely from the danger. After all Trump did win in many states and the popular vote is a staggering 48% of the popular vote. Even more dismaying is the fact that the Republican Party has not thought it fit to distance itself from the insane claims of the President refusing to concede defeat. Some leaders of the party echo his claim that victory has been ‘stole from him!                

Our conscious sections aware of the heritage of modern Indian democracy (sadly sometimes debunked as Western tinsel) have been a little late in getting their act together. They perhaps thought the aggression would remain tentative and incremental, allowing them to respond effectively over time. But the enemy had long-maturing plans, elaborate strategies covering every aspect of the campaign and an efficient and effective force to mount the assault. Already in the late nineties some of their generals were muttering under their breath about a ‘second republic’. And they have seized the moment catching the people unawares with blitzkrieg like speed, capturing one strategic point after another.            

The first target has been education and the universities, where freedom of enquiry and thought was enshrined in essential form. Then came the media, the press and TV. The power of the States to act on their own has been whittled down with brazen encroachments. The institutions that watched over democratic governance have been relentlessly reduced to cyphers. The Parliament has become practically a rubber-stamp in spite of the doughty resistance of the opposition. Decisions of major importance for the nation have been taken keeping Parliament out of the loop. The police and investigating agencies have been turned into hunting-packs to go after any dissent and resistance.  Basic freedoms are in limbo and are used to arm only the fanatical saboteurs of democracy. Need one go on?            

Hence the parallel in the two scenarios cannot be fortuitous. And that also suggests lessons may indeed be drawn from America’s success in pulling back from the very brink of disaster.              

It will be a fatal error to give Joe Biden the credit for it. He only symbolises and embodies the entire resistance movement where diverse forces, some even mutually hostile, came together in unique historic solidarity to save the nation. Any rift would have spelt disaster. The healthy and progressive elements in the nation came together in keenest awareness of the looming common danger, shedding differences in outlook and ideology. Passionate democrats, blacks, Hispanics, conservatives committed to the constitution, many Indian-origin citizens, women in quest for equal rights, conscious progressive groups, socialists, communists, the far left and diverse novel communities like the LGBT, all united in unprecedented solidarity to defend American democracy.

 No one party or individual can be said to have led It. It was the people awake and astir. The difference from what is visible in India could not be more glaring. Here parties are expected to meet and then lead their flocks who supposedly wait to be passively led. This idea inspires fireworks of impassioned rhetoric and hair-splitting analytical feats. But they come up against a solid block of obstruction erected with ingenuity and meticulous design.  

An unfortunate recent example is the unexpected setback in Bihar. if only the Congress had been content with some twenty or twenty-five fewer seats to contest, the MGB would have undoubtedly sailed through. No matter. If lessons from these results are taken to heart, the future is not closed as yet. Meanwhile defenders of democracy must leave their comfort zones and like Americans make every effort to make the people take up the banner. The Hathras moment has come and gone and we have failed to turn it into the rallying point against tyranny.

(End of Part One) 

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the authors own. 

Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain:

Development as Disaster

Reviving the NRC brawl



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