Opinion Columnists 19 Jan 2021 Anand K. Sahay | Bid ...
Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

Anand K. Sahay | Biden has tough task, to keep autocrats in check

Published Jan 20, 2021, 12:07 am IST
Updated Jan 20, 2021, 12:07 am IST
Biden will no doubt be deeply conscious that he comes in as the chief at a deeply corroding moment in American life
Mr Biden has a difficult, complex, sensitive job on his hands. If he succeeds, an impulse toward future insurgencies can be held in check. (Photo:AP)
 Mr Biden has a difficult, complex, sensitive job on his hands. If he succeeds, an impulse toward future insurgencies can be held in check. (Photo:AP)

The aftereffects of the attempted “insurrection” at the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, which have turned American society and politics upside down, may be expected to reverberate worldwide. The impact of signal events is not confined to particular geographies. The history of the last 100 years shows this amply.

Although the Indian national movement against colonial rule was not fully formed then, the defeat of Czarist Russia in the 1904-05 war at the hands of Imperial Japan boosted nationalist sentiments in this country and created the confidence that Europeans can be defeated by an Asian country. Later, the Russian revolution of 1917 became an inspiration, creating the sense that the poor can overthrow empires. India’s own independence in 1947 had set the tone for the dynamics of decolonisation worldwide.


Enough has been said about the sense of entitlement that sections of white America are thought to harbor, and that it was this feeling that Donald Trump -- although he was in the White House -- was willing to mobilise in his failed effort to overturn the result of a presidential election that he had lost fair and square. It has also been noted that the great institutions of American democracy held, though their weaknesses have also been widely observed.

As he assumes office on Wednesday, President Joe Biden will no doubt be deeply conscious that he comes in as the chief at a deeply corroding moment in American life. He may perhaps worry how this may impact his capacity to work at policies in relation to the rest of the world.


America’s leadership in the world depended not only on its wealth, its technology, and its great military power, but on its adherence to the idea and rules of democracy in a fundamental way, no matter how flawed this was in the perception of the people of the world. This democracy quotient, which gave the US an edge over any other powerful nation, has been brought into question by recent events.

Governments may continue to kowtow -- probably in a wobbly way -- to even the reduced US hegemony of the present-day since Washington still has enormous financial clout and military muscle, but America has lost the constituency of the people on the world stage.


It is this disenchantment, brought about by events that have played out on television screens across the world, that has now unexpectedly empowered tyrants, authoritarians, semi-despots, crypto-fascists, military dictators, and managers of police states. The overlords of terrorism will now have less to fear.

These recent developments have also denuded America of its legitimacy. The US can no longer call out grimy regimes. These will now be more emboldened than before to inflict pain on sections of their own people and act in conscious denial of humanist values. Their policies are now likely to be less directed toward assuaging the hunger of their own people, and directed more toward aggression, militarism and narrow nationalisms, making the world even more unsafe for the most vulnerable.


Callous authoritarians typically seek to draw acceptance from the atavistic sentiments of the majority population in society, or on a linguistic majoritarian basis. The people who are not of the same language, religion, ethnic stock as the majority may now expect to suffer more than before from perpetrators that may be direct agencies of the government or civilian gangs which routinely inflict public violence on fellow-civilians as the one-sided, discriminatory State looks on, in some cases still dubiously proclaiming faith in the tenets of democracy.


In India, both variants of the game have found play in recent years. Indeed, there are now not too many examples remaining of properly functioning democracies where the rule of law is for real, or even of seriously aspiring democracies for that matter. The dice was always loaded against the practice of democracy in the last century and in the first two decades of the present. With the fall of America from its pedestal, and India, the most populous aspiring democracy, already having taken a tumble, autocracy will have a field day unless people rise to resist.


America’s much-vaunted institutions have just about held in the face of the vicious January 6 onslaught. No section of the US military was (probably) a party to that shame. But sections of the police evidently were. Among the mobilisers and participants were some armed forces and security services veterans, and they went into the Capitol with loaded weapons to look for key elected officials to kill. We might as well be talking about benighted places like Afghanistan or Iraq.

The fate of the Republican Party, the ruling party of the past four years, is uncertain. Many of its most senior figures appear keen to appease the constituency that raided the Capitol, suggesting that such sections carry traction. And this is the party of Abraham Lincoln, mind, not a clone of the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists. If the fundamentals are to be noted, influential sections of the Republicans look ready to pander to the base that has come to harbour a sense of entitlement because this base has a deep sense of grievance arising from economic fragility and existential vulnerabilities.


Documented studies and surveys suggest that the new generation of Americans, not excluding the white, harbours a disappointment. Their life prospects appear inferior to those that their parents knew. Evidently, there is a serious structural malady which, if left untended, can lead to monstrous political outcomes.

American capitalism, and its military-industrial complex, has permitted the US war machine to rain bombs on countries around the world, restricting the US government’s capability to come to the aid of those in trouble in its own society. This is a readymade situation for an ambitious demagogue like Mr Trump to exploit in the future also, and other demagogues in the world to follow his vile example. So, we should all keep our fingers crossed.


It is this situation that the incoming US President has to address on an urgent basis. Mr Biden has a difficult, complex, sensitive job on his hands. If he succeeds, an impulse toward future insurgencies can be held in check. In any event, pressing domestic concerns are likely to demand his immediate attention, but if the new President’s energies in engaging with the world are severely rationed, autocrats around the world will be left smiling.