I went to college in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Those were the days of the hammer and sickle and Marxism, socialism and revolution were discussed over endless cups of coffee. There seemed nothing wrong with the Left and nothing right with capitalism. The US was a no-no subject and it was blasphemous to even mention it. However, one grew up, got a job, raised a family and in the midst of a changing world, the rose-tinted glasses came off. But a light pink came to the surface once in a while. Nehru and his utopia soon disappeared to be replaced by pragmatism, politics and unscrupulous politicians. The gradual erosion of institutions started and the integrity of the executive, legislature and judiciary began to crumble slowly till it snowballed from the late ’80s to the present moment.
Being a part of the system, both as an active participant and hapless observer, one began to look at other countries — especially the democracies of USA, UK and Europe. All was not bad in their system, especially the institutions of everyday governance. You could disagree with the economics, but there was something to admire in the governance.
During his entire four years as the US President, Donald Trump rejected almost all administrative and legislative norms, despised traditions and abused the powers of office. In short, he did whatever he could to break the system and set up a fully personal imperial presidency. He gave members of his family important positions. He hired and fired seniormost officials on personal whims. He was wrecking institutions and using the Senate to further his goals. There was a method in this madness and he was putting his personal stamp on all instruments of governance and setting the template for his next term and a possible dynastic succession in the person of his daughter Ivanka.
The recent presidential campaign was an ugly one and Trump strode across the American stage like an evil colossus who was certain about his victory. He ignored the pandemic and the advice of scientists. As he began to see the signs of a possible defeat, he raised the bogey of a rigged election and launched a systematic tirade against the electoral process, especially postal ballots. He began to cast aspersions on the Governors and officials who oversee the process and certify the results. He added more vitriol and abuse in his remarks about the print and visual media. His captive and diehard supporters came to believe this narrative and the pressure began to mount on the electoral machine.
However, the staff stuck to their duties and there was no evidence of electoral fraud in the country. Many of the Governors and senior officers in the swing states were Republicans. It is a tribute to them that not one of them overturned the results. Having not succeeded here, Trump started asking for recounts, which were done but the results remained unchanged. He now went to the judiciary and complained against officers for committing fraud. The first recourse was federal judges, all of whom, about 60 in all, threw out his petitions for lack of evidence. Some had been appointed by him, but no favours were granted by them. He finally went to the Supreme Court, where he had nominated three judges and three had also been nominated by Republican Presidents. The Supreme Court held true and also threw out his petition.
In the meantime, rumours circulated about the army and for the first time in American history, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a message to all ranks of the armed forces that they had always been apolitical and would remain so. You can imagine the disruption one man could cause in the entire system. Trump then played his final card, which even his worst rivals and best friends never imagined. He gave a call to the ‘faithful’ to come to Washington on January 6 in large numbers so that they could browbeat Vice President Pence into submitting to his will. They collected outside Capitol Hill, where there were scant security arrangements. Before the Vice President could announce the result, the mob incited by Trump stormed the Capitol and created mayhem.
The arrival of the National Guard brought the situation under control and the Vice President made the announcement that Joseph Biden Jr had been elected President. Vice President Pence had stood up in the face of immense pressure and done his constitutional duty. The new President and Vice President have been sworn in, work has resumed and systems are being restored. The pandemic is being taken seriously and efforts to heal a divided country have begun. But, it is going to be a long haul. Trump has been impeached for inciting insurrection, whether the Senate will convict him remains to be seen.
Here is the crux: in the face of a dictatorial President and his rogue followers, in the face of threats and inducements, the American electoral system functioned as per the Constitution. The counting agents, the senior officers, Governors, the judiciary, the armed forces and the Vice President refused to compromise on their oath to the Constitution and listened to their conscience. Not one individual at any level bowed down to unlawful demands, not one wavered while performing his/her duty. I salute them and the system which nurtured them and I further salute their media.
Throughout the years of the Trump presidency, the media faced a barrage of abuse and insult with dignity and professionalism. They continued to present the facts and their comments. Let us conclude by having a brief look at our government, our institutions, our judiciary, our media — in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘How many times can a man turn his head / And pretend that he just doesn’t see?// The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.’ The ruling party has its own agenda, declared decades ago. They are a democratically elected party and can bring about changes. However, if the changes are to be so sweeping, there should be proper discussions in Parliament and parliamentary procedures should be honoured. In the case of a major change, the people should be taken into confidence and ordinances and laws should not be promulgated unilaterally. In the absence of a counter-narrative by the Opposition, the brute majority of the government is forcing its way through.
Open dialogue is the fundamental basis of democracy and it is in this that the government and the media are sorely lacking. The judiciary and the executive — the two pillars which ensure justice, fairness and continuity — need a deep introspection of their recent performance, or the lack of it. An independent media, judiciary and bureaucracy are the watchdogs of democracy and they should not be domesticated into abject submission.
However, all is not lost and the people are the final arbiters of their fate, as the farmers have shown through their peaceful agitation. They have expressed their dissent and the government should in its wisdom find a way out. It should be remembered that the farmer has no religion, caste or creed. It is mother earth and nature which have nurtured him and he in turn nurtures all humanity. He tills his land and serves his country, he does not easily complain or boast. Driven to the wall, he does not stand injustice. The ‘annadata’ is the child of nature and intuitively works under its guidance. Nature has taught him patience, how to face the elements, and that is why there’s hope. The farmer is holding a mirror to the country and asking it to reflect. It is fitting that the Punjabi farmer has shown the way and brothers across the land have taken over the torch. Talk to him with love and respect — constructing Maginot lines is not the answer.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP
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