Incredible things are happening in America. An incumbent President refusing to vacate office is unheard-of. Donald Trump is doing what no US President has done in the past, indeed, what no government head in a democracy has done. The result is not just the crumbling of American democracy; physical attacks are taking place by one group against another. Barack Obama put it right when he said that violence at the US Capitol Hill had brought shame to the US.
To see the horror of what is happening in America (of all places, America, long considered a model of democracy), think of India in 2014. A general election took place in April-May that year. The alliance led by the BJP won a sweeping victory, taking 336 seats although the BJP itself got only 31 per cent of the votes. Other parties could have used that fact as an excuse to throw out the BJP. But no one protested when the BJP alliance formed the government.
What happened in America was the opposite of what happened in India. Thousands of Trump supporters started rioting, interrupted a joint session of the American Congress that was underway and created general mayhem in Washington DC. Ex-President Obama said: “History will rightly remember today’s violence at the Capitol, incited by a sitting President who has continued to baselessly lie about the outcome of a lawful election, as a moment of great dishonour and shame for our nation.” He didn’t leave it at that.
He hit the bull’s eye by adding: “We’d be kidding ourselves if we treated [the violence] as a total surprise.”
Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building with a clear intent: Disrupting the electoral count. The count had to be formally completed to formally declare the winner. The pro-Trump rioters were fully prepared for the assault they carried out. The whole city of Washington DC was in chaos, four men were killed in the violence and the Mayor was forced to impose a curfew. Biden was finally certified as the winner and his inauguration is due on January 20. Will the American Capital see more violence caused by a President rebelling against his voters?
No American President in the past had acted so selfishly and in defiance of voters. Even George W Bush, not exactly an enlightened leader, said it was a “sickening and heart-breaking sight. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic, not in our democratic republic.”
Another former President, Bill Clinton, was more downright. Keeping Trump’s self-centred politics in mind, he said that the assault on the Capitol was fuelled by more than four years of “poison politics”. That reference to the Trump brand of leadership was capped with the accusation that this President was “pitting Americans against one another”. Hillary Clinton went so far as to call Trump and his associates “domestic terrorists”.
Such was the unprecedented nature of the violence in America that expressions of shock came from all corners of the world. Indian public opinion was strong that subversion of the democratic process was not merely unlawful but also dangerous. Narendra Modi was finally forced to distance himself from the man he proudly called a friend during the euphoria of the Howdy Modi days. The bizarre Modi-Trump camaraderie grew more bizarre when Trump’s America conferred on Modi the American medal for meritorious service. The show of unusual recognition was sudden and its reasons unexplained. Of course, India is of value to the US as a buyer of American arms.
But what was on show here was not the India-US ties but the Modi-Trump ties. It was a tactical mistake for India to be seen as a Trump client. The price for that Modi folly will have to be paid during the Biden years. It won’t be easy. Modi being a natural embracer, it will be hard for him to accept the reality that everybody does not like being hugged. In Wuhan in 2019, Xi Jinping received him with a shake-hand.
The big question is: Do shake-hands and hugs produce results in politics? Modi’s embraces are seen worldwide as part of his showmanship. They have won no friends for India. Not even in the immediate neighbourhood. India needs to grow beyond the idiosyncrasies of individuals in power. Greater is the need for the US to rise above the madness of a sitting President.