A Few Sobering Lessons for India from Washington’s Day of Infamy

It is time, across democracies, that those besotted with ‘strong leaders’ give up their infatuation.

When 9/11 happened, the ISI chief happened to be in Washington, D.C. He was summoned to meet the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. The American official peremptorily told the Pakistani spy-master that Islamabad must choose sides because, “History begins today.”

The Bush conservatives used that hyperbole to insist that countries around the world join their ‘war on terror,’ tweak their national laws, policies and practices to go after terrorists, even if it meant taking liberties with the civil liberties and personal freedoms of their own citizens.

Soon, the world got prepped up to become susceptible to the charm of ‘strong men’ and their authoritarian solutions against ‘enemies’ at home and abroad; and, America itself became a rougher, less gentle , less tolerant, and less democratic place.

Political ugliness, official heavy-handedness, social insensitivity became integral to the new post-9/11 orthodoxy, notwithstanding the Obama interregnum. The Donald Trump presidency was an inevitable by-product of that misconceived ‘war.’ America was stuck deeper in the quagmire of its own collective imbecilities. 

And, last Wednesday, the United States got its richly deserved comeuppance when the Trump hordes invaded the Capitol just as Senators and Congressmen had gathered to pronounce Joe Biden the newly elected president. The world could see for itself that the mobs were inspired and incited by the very man in the White House whose every occupant since the World War II has symbolised (or claimed to symbolise) order and democracy around the world. But it was the only possible denouement the Trump presidency could have had.

And the sense of violation inflicted on American democracy was felt across the world.

Just as 9/11 became the excuse for consecration of the national security state, 1/6 must now be taken for what it is – a warning that the democratic fight back can no longer be delayed. It is time, across democracies, that those besotted with ‘strong leaders’ give up their infatuation and exorcise themselves out of the cultivated ugliness of the personality cult. 

But it needs also to be recognised that January 6 has been in the making for some time now.

All those who had a responsibility to slow down a marauding Donald Trump failed to stand up to him. It is no satisfaction that in the end it did dawn on Vice-President Mike Pence and Senator Majority Leader that Trump had reached a tipping point. Or, that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter finally did get stern with a serial offender. 

Of course, historians have always warned that societies pay a heavy price when they succumb to the process of “elective remembrance and collective forgetting.” Before Trump, there was McCarthy.

Also read: A Short History of Trumpism: Where It Came From, Where It’s Headed

In the 1950s the Americans found themselves paralysed as a similar demagogue – Senator Joseph McCarthy – bestrode the stage, striking fear in the hearts of politicians, officials, intellectuals and artists as he went about levelling accusations of betrayal and sedition. For years, Republicans and Democrats cowered before him as he was deemed to command attention and control of voters in the key big swing states.

A culture of fear installed itself in Washington – a fear that the Bad Boy can upturn your political career. It took years to excise McCarthyism out of the American political bloodstream. 

After Wednesday’s ignominy, so-called Trumpism stands de-legitimised as an acceptable political creed. We in India would do well to understand the American tragedy of Donald Trump, the very man we serenaded last January at Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad. Our own rulers sought to garner global respectability by association with that man and his kind of politics. And that politics was decidedly anchored in undemocratic habits and practices. 

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves next to U.S. President Donald Trump as they attend the “Namaste Trump” event at Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium, in Ahmedabad, India, February 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Whereas the United States can boast of a system of checks and balances which still ensures that the occupant of the White House does not go entirely berserk, we in India are on a weak wicket. Or, perhaps, as Yeats had put it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

As a political system, we are no stranger to the phenomenon of almost all constitutional arrangements acquiescing in a ruler’s authoritarian waywardness.

In the past few years, those manning our institutions have allowed themselves to be bamboozled into the role of an accomplice. The constitution arms them with powers, authority and prestige to perform their institutional dharma, yet it would seem that petty calculations and selfish interests prevail. Consequently, the drive for aggrandisement of executive power seems unstoppable.

And this accumulation of power has come to acquire a patina of respectability because we have allowed a new groupthink to creep upon us. The new ruling clique has draped itself with nationalism, jingoism and militarism; it relies on intimidation against its political rivals, as it is confident of the timidity of various institutional players. 

For example, the “goli maaro salo ko” virus remains untamed – and, uncured. The judiciary and the Election Commission and all others watchdogs have looked the other way, hoping that the beast will go back to the jungle. Violence as the preferred tool retains its own allurement. We have not renounced celebration of roughness. Rather we remain in thrall of the very same ugly impulses that went rampant in the American capital on January 6. 

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Photo: PTI/Files

Donald Trump has lacked the requisite grace to respect the protocol of peaceful transfer of power, the very hallmark of a democracy. For now, he says he will not be attending the Biden inauguration. That can only mean that he remains unchastened.

All the more reason we need to cure ourselves of all infatuation with Trump and the boorishness he made so fashionable around the world.

Like history’s familiar autocrats, Trump allowed himself to hallucinate that he was on the right path, had the best interests of the American people at heart and therefore was ordained to lord over the United States for another four years, at least.

We in India have democracy’s obligation to ensure that our own rulers do not cross the lakshman rekha

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.