For most Indians, the news of a siege on Capitol Hill in Washington DC by a belligerent and raucous mob of Trump supporters, caused shock and disbelief, as visuals of the Capitol — engulfed in smoke, a deserted Senate floor, members of the House of Representatives taking cover, and armed ruffians vandalising the halls of that chamber of democracy — began to circulate widely.
But there was also some schadenfreude from those who had grown tired of hearing American lectures on democracy to the rest of the world. Some saw the events as a sort of end to American ‘exceptionalism’ and a corrective to that nation’s moralistic grandstanding on promoting democracy across the globe.
The Indian government swiftly condemned the incident, with the prime minister tweeting that he was “distressed to see news about rioting and violence in Washington DC. Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue. The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests”.
But these words, though timely, and all the more welcome as a retreat from “ab ki baar Trump Sarkar” — his inappropriate pronouncement in Houston — are likely to do little to assuage the growing concerns of many Indians who see our own country tread a similar path.
India’s Transition From A Constitutional Democracy To An Illiberal Polity
Since the arrival of the current ruling dispensation in 2014 and then again in 2019, India has witnessed a steady transition from a once thriving liberal and constitutional democracy to an illiberal polity characterised by a deeply polarised and stratified society, a systemic assault on institutions of governance that have compromised their autonomy, the reduction of our Parliament to a rubber-stamp and a notice-board, the erosion of our constitutional ethos and the spirit of federalism that have kept our diverse communities together, and the rise of chauvinistic and nativist forces that have arrogated to themselves the right to define Indian identity and determine the answer to the question of paramount importance — who is an Indian?
What Do Today’s India & US Have In Common?
In many ways, these worrying trends that are redefining the social and political landscape of our country have parallels with events that are taking place in America:
- In the US, the Confederacy, which seemed decisively eliminated after the Civil War, appears to have made an energetic comeback. In India, the Hindutva movement, repudiated convincingly at the time of our Independence and through the spirit of the values enshrined in our Constitution, has similarly made a dramatic rise in the last decade. In both countries, ideas that seemed decisively repudiated by the national consensus are asserting themselves — and so tearing that consensus apart.
- In terms of political leadership, both countries have been defined by the rise of ‘strongman’ politics, with leaders seeking vindication in the adulation of their followers and identifying themselves as the chief determinants of the national interest.
- The hollowing out of institutions that were expected to act as a check and balance on the executive overreach of the government has taken place. In the end, the US’s institutions – notably the judiciary and the free press – proved not to have been hopelessly compromised. It is difficult to assert that this will prove to be the case in today’s India.
- The rampant use of social media to target political opponents through organised trolling and propagation of fake news has transformed politics in both countries. Again, the social media companies that went so far as to ban the Head of State from their portals in the US have proven hesitant to consider firm action against much lower-ranked purveyors of hate and falsehood in India. The BJP has developed a powerful band of cyber-warriors to propagate its message of Hindu chauvinism, contempt for minorities, and hyper-nationalism, coupled with a capacity for Rottweiler-like attacks on political opponents.
- Majoritarianism is inherent in both the rise of the Trumpists and the Hindutva movement. The Washington rioters were largely white and male. Just as the Trumpists have made a fetish out of national pride and racial superiority, in India the Hindutva movement has redefined nationalism on its own terms, marginalised the standard-bearers of civic constitutionalism and mobilised violence on behalf of its interpretation of the Indian ethos.
How Trump & Modi Successfully Persuaded Their Respective Vote Banks
The stratification of our two societies has been accelerated by the dominant political leadership of the two countries. Both Trump and Modi have fashioned themselves as the voice of the people, promising to restore lost national pride, increase economic growth and take back traditional power centres that had been dominated by the liberal elites.
Trump’s key slogans like ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ had counterparts in Modi’s ‘sabka saath, sabka vishwas’ and the promise of ‘acche din’ and a ‘Naya Bharat’. Where Trump promised to get rid of the Washington elite and ‘drain the swamp’, our own ruling dispensation labelled their adversaries as the ‘Lootyens elite’ and the ‘Khan Market Gang’. With their assiduously built-up cults of personality, both offered ‘strong leadership‘ and successfully persuaded their voters that they were more authentic embodiments of their nations than the allegedly rootless secular cosmopolitans they sought to displace.
Why India Must Rebuild The Ethos That Animated Our Freedom Struggle
Institutions have been enfeebled in both nations but the assault on our institutions has been far more direct, including pressure on financial regulators like the RBI; the investigative agencies (notably the Central Bureau of Investigation); the Election Commission, which organises, conducts, and rules on the country’s general and state elections; the upper echelons of the Armed Forces; institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; the elected legislatures; the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court — and even the free press.
The result is the decay of the liberal, tolerant and democratic ethos that both countries have been proud to share.
It is our task in India to rebuild that original ethos that animated our freedom struggle and characterised our inclusive nationalism. Let the events in Capitol Hill serve as a stark warning to us of what could come our way if we fail to do so.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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