My dear America, shame on you. All democracy-loving people all over the world look up to you for guidance in democracy. You have dashed their faith to the ground, and that too beyond redemption. With a $22 trillion economy, $65,000 per capita income, 99% literacy and, over and above, a huge intellectual base that includes as many as 336 Nobel laureates, nearly thrice the number of the next in line (United Kingdom), you could not even conduct an election with dignity!
One would have pardoned you had it been unforeseen. But it was not unforeseen. Everyone across the world, including you, had anticipated that it would end in violence soon after the results were out. One of your own presidential hopefuls in the early days of the Primaries, Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party, had predicted what could be expected of President Donald Trump if he had an inkling of impending defeat. He would not wait, Sanders foretold, until the final count and would instead announce victory midway and incite his fans to go on a rampage.
Why this embarrassing charade? Do Trump and his fanatic admirers consider the White House their fiefdom which cannot be occupied by anyone else? Even the hysterical enthusiasts of victorious presidential candidate Andrew Jackson two hundred years ago knew he was not entitled to rule perpetually. Why, then, does the same America, which has proudly conducted peaceful presidential elections and smooth transfers of power from as early as 1789, suddenly finds itself in a cesspool?
I am personally disappointed, and I have my reasons. In the early 1960s, I was one of the first batch of Indian students exposed to American history at the University of Bhagalpur in Bihar. To the best of my knowledge, it was one of a small minority of Indian universities to have introduced American history as an optional course. Later, when I conducted research on America for my doctorate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, I realised it was part of American Cold War propaganda.
Whether or not it was part of CIA activity in India, the course exposed me to America and its history, which in turn informed my understanding of world politics during my future career. The tragic assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 left a deep imprint, as he appeared to me a young dynamic leader. My interest in America increased further. It remains the first political assassination in my living memory. About Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination I had only read in books. It was during the same time that the American Embassy started publishing a monthly newspaper called The American Reporter, which was distributed free of cost (though each copy did carry a price sticker).
The magazine carried a regular feature space called “Inquiring Reporter”. Readers were invited to contribute answers to the question: “Which American, living or dead, do you admire the most?” My choice was foreordained. My indisputable hero those days was Thomas Jefferson. He is known today not so much as the third president of the United States but much more as the one who drafted America’s Declaration of Independence. What impressed my impressionable mind the most was his commitment to freedom of thought. He wanted these words inscribed as his epitaph, inter alia: “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against any kind of tyranny over the mind of man”. It was later that I came to know that Jefferson was, true to his white gentry class, a significant slave owner. Not only that, he fathered several children with his slave companion Sally Hemming, without emancipating any of them.
There was yet another aspect to my interest in America. From early childhood, the story of Columbus’s accidental discovery of America fascinated me. I dreamt that someday I would go and meet these “Indians” (in India, the moniker “Red Indian” remains common) to see whether there was any similarity between us. That dream, however, remained a dream until I visited America for the first time in 1975 to conduct research at the Library of Congress. While in Washington DC, I got in touch with the Bureau of Education in the US State Department to help me fulfil my dream of visiting an Indian Pueblo. I remain ever grateful to the lady officer (I no longer recall her name) who helped organise my stay for two nights with Louis and Angi in the Yakima Valley Reservation in the state of Washington.
The most memorable event during that visit was my participation in a Yakima Indian get-together. Contrary to my childhood imagination about Indians with colourful costumes and headgears, the people I met were dressed in the most trendy and expensive fashions and extravagantly decked out with jewellery. I recall most the way my farmer host, Mr. Louis, dragged me to the podium and loudly declared, “Here is the real Indian Columbus was looking for”. The assembled crowd greeted the announcement with deafening cheers. My day was made; my childhood dream culminated in this dramatic finale. After I returned to India I consulted the American Library in Delhi to know more about American Indians and their tragic history. In due course, I wrote an article on them, which the leading weekly Sunday (Kolkata) carried in its 16 April 1978 issue with the title, “The Other Indians”.
During the final month of my research trip to the United States, I decided to explore the country (thanks to a Greyhound unlimited travel AmeriPass). In those days, there used to be so-called “hospitality centres” in almost every small or big town, where Americans could voluntarily register themselves as hosts to young foreigners. The latter were picked up from the local bus or rail station, or airport, taken for a free tour of the town and its neighbourhood, concluding with lunch or dinner at the host’s home. I cannot remember how many American homes I visited this way during that month of criss-crossing the vast United States. Those were not the days of the internet otherwise I would have kept in touch with the many lovely American families I met.
Therefore, it pains me when I see aspects of America that I love collapse in front of my eyes. Americans need not be reminded that their country continues to exercise a massive influence on global norms of orderly life (in many ways, this is separate from and does not let the United States off the hook for poking its dirty nose in every nook and cranny of the world). If American democracy stumbles, the day is not far when most fledgling democracies in vast parts of the developing world will collapse like the proverbial pack of cards.
As a non-American I have no business to advise Americans but certain things defy anyone’s common sense. I am not even arguing that only popular votes should matter and that the Electoral College is anachronistic. I have enough reason to argue (see my October column) that in modified form it is perhaps the best guarantee for America’s federal model. And yet I cannot believe such an intelligent nation could be so naïve about setting its electoral house in order. Whoever wins the presidency, the first task on the agenda of Congress should be to elect a bipartisan committee to go threadbare into all that plagues the American election system, debate the report word by word, and pass the final document latest by the year’s end. Let that be the 2022 New Year’s gift to the nation.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He is a former ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.