Indian democracy—Taking lessons from the U.S

Kalyani Shankar

How does the largest democracy India compare with the oldest democracy US on practicing democracy? 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 they can do in their own country.” 

All through the presidential campaign, Trump had declared that he would not move out of the White House even if he were defeated. His rival Joe Biden retorted that he would be escorted out by the military. But no one expected an attack on the capitol, which is regarded as the temple of democracy. Trump has spent the last two months refusing to concede the defeat claiming mass voter fraud but the worst was his instigation of the capitol riots. 

According to the American media, Trump began his most ‘infamous’ Wednesday morning shortly after 8-00 am making a last-ditch effort with a tweet asking his Vice President Mike Pence to intervene and overthrow the duly elected presidential nominee Joe Biden’s election. Pence publicly issued a letter around 1-00 pm declaring that he would not illegally intervene in Congress, minutes before convening the joint session of the US Congress to certify the Electoral College.

Trump addressed his supporters about 1-00 pm and declared ‘We will never give up, we will never concede,’ and announced “We’re going to the Capitol.” Trump whipped up the rally into a frenzy. However, he did not join them in the riots that followed in the Capitol and went back to the White House and watched the destruction on television. At the end of Wednesday after Congress confirmed

Joe 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 20th.” 

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There are many reasons for Trump’s audacious behavior. First of all, he is a bad loser and reluctant to admit defeat. Even in 2016, he had declared he would accept results only if he won or else he would resort to legal action. Secondly, now that he has lost the presidency, he would lose all federal protections against prosecutions. Thirdly, he needs his followers so that if he makes a presidential bid in 2024, they might be his support bases. 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. Fourthly, he also has to keep the section of Republicans who support him in the party. 

This attack on the US democracy makes one compare the largest democracy India that has gone through many trials and tribulations in the past 73 years. India notably has faced a smooth transfer of power 17 times. The electorate also had become mature by punishing authoritarian rulers. Even Indira Gandhi who imposed the Emergency in 1975 worked within the system, which bears little direct parallel to the current situation in the United States. 

In declaring an emergency under Article 352 of the Indian Constitution, Gandhi blamed the “hidden hand” of the CIA for internal unrest. The late President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, who had been a congressman all his life described the emergency period in his book “The Dramatic Decade: The Indira Gandhi Years”: 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 23rd March1977. Congress came down from 352 seats to just 189 seats in Lok Sabha in the 1977 elections. Janata government came to power. People’s anger subsided and a subdued Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980 when the Janata government collapsed. Since then her successors have confined themselves within the confines of the Constitution 

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Even in states where cult leaders like Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray or Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa or RJD leader Lallu Prasad Yadav remained authoritarian but within the Constitution. So to that extent, India has been lucky that democracy survives. 

The American democracy got a jolt by Wednesday’s shocking attack on the capitol. It is not over yet as Trump might make some more attempts till January 20, when Biden takes over unless he is impeached for a second time. 

The framers of the US Constitution would never have thought of such behavior from the sitting president defying the Constitution.  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.”

Kalyani Shankar is a senior journalist and analyst based in New Delhi.

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