The world’s oldest and largest democracies were punctuated by two dramatic sieges at the start of 2021, each of which provides an insightful glimpse into the troubled politics of two countries.
On January 6, 2021, the U.S. Capitol building was partially taken over by a violent mob comprising supporters of former President Donald Trump. They attacked law enforcement officers, vandalised public property, and threatened lawmakers in Congress. One woman was killed at the site of the siege, and four others died during the course of the attack and its aftermath, including a police officer.
Twenty days later, a rally planned on Republic Day in India led to violence after farmers protesting three new laws aimed at reforming agricultural markets broke off from the planned parade and entered Delhi, including the premises of the Red Fort by breaking the gates, only to be met by a police crackdown including arrests and lathi charges.
There are both similarities and differences between the two episodes, each worth considering in turn.
The common thread between the sieges on two major public buildings — the U.S. Capitol and the Red Fort — is that a discontented collective vented its anger about a recent political development through a mass rally. In America, that anger was directed at the very heart of democracy itself, the 2020 presidential election that saw Joe Biden emerge victorious. The context for the surge of anger at this outcome was the fact that Mr. Trump sought to deliberately undermine the credibility of the vote tallying process by attacking, for many months on Twitter, mail-in voting as fraudulent. Despite fact-checkers and mainstream U.S. media consistently emphasising that Mr. Trump’s claims were empirically false and misleading, it was only when Twitter suspended his account that the volley of fake news from the Oval Office finally ended. Subsequently, Mr. Trump faced the ignominy of being the first U.S. president in history to be impeached for a second time by the House of Representatives – this time for incitement of violence – although again it appears that Senate Republicans will not support the move to convict him and potentially deny him the right to hold public office again.
In India, anger has been rising steadily since Parliament passed three laws reforming the way the mandi, or marketplace, system works. This effectively cuts out middlemen and traders and empowers private entities to directly contract with agricultural producers, yet it also potentially endangers the historically entrenched minimum support price system that can be the economic backbone of small-scale farmers. While farmers initially staged peaceful sit-ins in Delhi and its surrounding areas, braving the winter cold to demand that the government repeal the laws, the lack of forward movement on the negotiating table appears to have triggered the ugly Republic Day clashes.
A second similarity across the two sieges is the emergence of disturbing images on social media, showing a darker side of the mass rallies – a propensity for targeted or planned violence. In the case of the Capitol building, one member of the invading mob was seen holding zip ties, implying a threat to the lives of lawmakers in the building, should they have been captured by the mob. Law enforcement discovered a truck filled with guns and bombs near the site of the attack.
In Delhi, social media was flooded with images of the Nishan Sahib, a religious flag of the Sikhs, being hoisted at the Red Fort, setting off a storm over whether the protests were less spontaneous than politically motivated. Yet, equally disturbing has been the move by law enforcement to crack down on the media in the aftermath of the protests — several senior journalists have been slapped with sedition and other criminal charges.
At the heart of both incidents is contested democracy. In the U.S., Mr. Trump’s clarion call for nativist populism and the dog whistles to white privilege reasserting its racist ethos into mainstream politics has found support with the 74 million-odd people who voted for him. Despite Mr. Biden’s convincing victory, the U.S. remains deeply divided over the vision of its future, a fact that will continue to haunt its politics for decades to come, impacting everything from economic protectionism to women’s reproductive rights.
In India, contrarily, politics has tipped sharply over the past decade towards the saffron world view of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its brute force majority in Parliament has empowered the government with the ability to refashion major policy paradigms as per this vision. Yet the farm laws protests shows that there is another India – the India of the poor, the lower castes and classes – which will not be silenced by majoritarian politics. Even if we grant that to an extent there might have been political motives behind the farm law protests, that still shows that pockets of resistance to the government’s laissez faire or neoliberal economic policy leanings will continue to make their voices heard. The same could be said of those who are excluded from the BJP’s homogenising view of Indian culture – the southern States with their distinctive political and ethnic histories are prominent examples of stand-out cases in this context.
In the widest arc of history, democracy has often been about the informal balance of power in societies — usually favouring a religious or racial majority — expressed through formal trappings of democratic practice, principally the institution of elections. As was seen during the rise of fascism in pre-World War Europe, democratic societies are inherently and perennially capable of tipping towards power structures that undermine democracy itself. The institutions of a free press and free and fair elections typically get degraded and devalued by society in the process. The U.S. and India have been beacons of democracy in the modern world, but the political forces unleashed in the two countries during the past decade or more could eventually transform them into cautionary tales.