Opinion Columnists 19 Jan 2021 Sunanda K. Datta Ray ...
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

Sunanda K. Datta Ray | Thoughts on democracy as Trump exits, finally…

Published Jan 19, 2021, 6:41 am IST
Updated Jan 19, 2021, 6:41 am IST
For it should never be forgotten that 74 million Americans voted for the man who now seems bent on destroying the edifice on which he stood
It is the legal action against Mr Trump by America’s senators and congressmen that grips the world’s attention. (Image: AFP)
 It is the legal action against Mr Trump by America’s senators and congressmen that grips the world’s attention. (Image: AFP)

Not long before Donald Trump became the first-ever American President to be impeached for a second time — this time with a real possibility of conviction — his daughter Ivanka chose to remind the world of the close ties between her father and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The opening and closure in record time of a study centre in Gwalior that exalted Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also occurred almost simultaneously.

It is the legal action against Mr Trump by America’s senators and congressmen that grips the world’s attention. The impeachment proceedings threaten to overwhelm President-elect Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan to end “a crisis of deep human suffering” by speeding up the supply of coronavirus vaccines and financially helping Americans who are still struggling with the economic disaster caused by the grim pandemic. It even distracts notice from the contradictions, if not crisis, of democracy that Mr Trump’s rantings and ravings have unwittingly highlighted. For it should never be forgotten that 74 million Americans voted for the man who now seems bent on destroying the edifice on which he stood.


While he is believed to have broken many constitutional norms during his four years in the White House — including trying desperately hard to thwart the peaceful transition of power to his legitimately elected successor — millions of Americans had endorsed his excesses. The January 6 rioters who stormed the US Capitol building in Washington chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and “Where’s Nancy?” clearly saw both the Republican vice-president and the Speaker of the House — the first and second in the line of presidential succession — as national enemies.


There is footage available of the rioters beating a police officer with a flagpole as the crowd chanted “USA” and crushing another officer repeatedly in a door. The violence resulted in five deaths; more might have perished if the police hadn’t distracted the mob from breaching the debating chambers long enough to whisk every legislator away to safety. The outrage to civilised governance was infinitely worse. Some Repub-licans, after encouraging or standing by mute as the President attacked the democratic process for months, have shaken consciences. Ten of them joined all 222 Democrats in the House vote accusing Mr Trump of “incitement of insurrection” that was passed on January 13, a week after the attack.


Even those who concede that Mr Biden obtained more votes can ask if that invalidates the views of 74 million Americans. 

A similar question arose in 2000 when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by winning 271 electoral votes, one more than a majority, despite Mr Gore receiving 543,895 more votes nationally. Many Americans did not regard it as a satisfactory outcome, but they accepted it without protest.

The flaw goes back to 507 BC when the Athenian Cleisthenes introduced demokratia, or “rule by the people”, from demos, “the people,” and kratos, or “power”. Setting aside the claims of Vaishali, Athens was the first democracy for the Western world. But it was a far cry from the universal adult suffrage which we identify with democracy today, and which can be indistinguishable from mob rule. In the middle of the 4th century, for instance, Athens boasted about 100,000 citizens (sons and daughters of citizens), some 10,000 metoikoi, or “resident foreigners”, and 150,000 slaves. Only male citizens above 18 were a part of the demos, meaning only about 40,000 people could participate in the democratic process.


Around 460 BC, under the rule of the general Pericles (generals were among the only public officials who were elected, not appointed), Athenian democracy began to evolve into an autocracy (Herodotus’ “the one man, the best”) which eventually led to Mao Zedong’s concept of “people’s democratic dictatorship”. The premise was that the party and the State represented the people and acted on their behalf to preserve the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and save the government from collapsing into a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, or liberal democracy. Mao famously used the term on June 30, 1949, commemorating the 28th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.


However, not all democracies are killed by Army coups or declarations of emergency. Many are destroyed from within. The urge to perpetuate a particular group’s stranglehold on power or the plea that a mere head count does not adequately reflect the mood and temper of the people explains opportunistic devices like Gen. Ayub Khan’s “basic democracy” (Pakistan), King Mahendra’s “panchayati democracy” (Nepal) or “guided democracy” (Indonesia). Mr Trump’s “America First” slogan is strongly echoed in the implicit argument that India’s majority feels disenfranchised unless it enjoys special privileges. Hence the Hindu Mahasabha’s attempt to propagate the “true nationalism which Godse stood for” through an eponymous library.


Three years ago, the Mahasabha installed a statue of Godse and was about to organise prayer meetings there, but the statue was removed. This second try has to be seen in the context of the constitutional dismemberment and demotion of Jammu and Kashmir, motivated tinkering with academic curriculums, triumphalism over the new Ram temple in Ayodhya, Hindutva trolls, opposition to inter-faith marriages and attacks on Muslims in the name of cow protection. WhatsApp and Twitter are said to be the main instruments for hounding the community.

In view of such similar populist moves, it was not surprising that 39-year-old Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser to her father, should choose this moment to recall her 2017 visit when she led a high-powered delegation to the Global Entrepreneur Summit in Hyderabad. “As the world continues to battle Covid-19, our countries’ strong friendship in promoting global security, stability, and economic prosperity is more important than ever,” she tweeted, paying particular tribute to Mr Modi by name. 


Given the association with a man who is widely accused of desperate attempts to subvert democracy, it’s a compliment the Prime Minister of an India that is still proud of being the world’s largest democracy could have done without.