The attempted mob takeover of the Capitol will probably remain a rare development. Rare, because political ingenuity often finds more sophisticated versions of conceit. Setbacks to democracy are not new, nor are megalomania and orchestrated outrage unknown as its causes. Trump’s rhetoric had all these elements. While the US has currently managed to stall the takeover, the ghost of that takeover should teach larger lessons.
The most elementary lesson is about the fragility of democracy. The US experience indicates that democracy requires continuous caution. Just as there is nothing like a naturally pro-democratic social environment, there is also nothing like a natural assurance of democracy’s sustenance. Both are matters of collective social will and effort. The second lesson is that executive coups are likely to be the norm rather than exception. As the American presidency transformed into the imperial presidency and parliamentary systems transformed into prime ministerial systems, executives became the repositories of state power and came to represent the might of the state. This has paved the way for silent or noisy coups by the executives. As Hungary has shown, the pandemic only expedited this process and as this writer warned last year, India’s “successful” lockdown inaugurated the template for turning the public sphere into a silence zone.
But perhaps the least learned lesson at home in India is about the comparative pathology of such autarchy lurking in our midst. So, while looking from a distance as to where Trump failed and why, let us better focus on where even Indira Gandhi’s infamous “emergency” dictatorship too differs from the slow death of democracy we might be witnessing. Because the basic Trump takeaway is that one should not wait till the crowds actually occupy the democratic space.
Executive coups are a product of a triad: Constructing a constituency of willing mobs, corrosion of institutions and producing a political establishment unconcerned with democratic norms. Trump could arouse the mobs but that was only at the final moment of a long drawn bitter contestation over the election outcome. American democracy may still claim that the culture of such mob outrage is not “normal”. Trump made every effort to demean institutions but did not succeed in his hope of a complete takeover. Third, he had limited success in waylaying the Republican party but both parties finally agreed on rescuing American democracy from his assault and, along with the legislature, the other important part of the political establishment, the media, too, did not yield. In a sense, therefore, Trump failed and his attempt remained desperate and amateur.
In India, whenever any discussion of assault on democracy ensues, the story of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency is obviously remembered as the first brazen, but short-lived, executive coup. The Emergency story continues to attract derision from her critics and careful academic memorialisation by students of Indian politics (the latest is the new book, India’s First Dictatorship by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil). But it is necessary not to allow the light of memory to blind us to the present. In comparison to the Emergency of 1975, the current moment is far better equipped for an executive coup and even while Indians mocked the US for January 6, much worse signals of a more serious takeover have dotted the political landscape. The footsteps of the current coup are so soft that most analysts and observers are unwilling to even recognise its shadow, leave aside the actual darkness it has brought.
So, where do India’s executive coups differ from Trump’s? Indira Gandhi’s coup used institutions more effectively than Trump, but despite all her populism, her resort to mobs as instruments of takeover was very limited. While she could easily rein in her own party, she had to face an uncompromising Opposition and take recourse to preventive detention. So, in comparison to Trump, hers was a more determined and somewhat systematic coup, barring announcing elections.
With the experience of Indira Gandhi, it was thought that India could not have another executive coup — firstly, because she was politically punished and, secondly, because collective memory would enhance a public reason more cautious about such takeovers. But the current phase of Indian politics might be recorded in history as the second executive coup India has had — and a much more successful and durable one.
In terms of constructing a constituency of the mob, the present moment is probably more dangerous than what India has seen so far for two reasons: There is a carefully orchestrated and sustained use of mobs which are excited prior to being unleashed and, two, a network of ideologically motivated organisations systematically whips up mob mentality among sections that are emotionally pushed to the precipice. Thus, the “science” of mob politics is employed in a nuanced manner with a rhetorical discourse legitimating the mob as the people.
Secondly, the present moment is characterised by an unprecedented institutional collapse. Executive coups are dependent on bureaucracies for their operational competence and on courts for the constitutional location of political chicanery. The ease with which both these institutional safeguards have crumbled has only made it easier for the coup to become viable and respectable.
Three, the vigour of the political establishment to fight against the coup is completely lacking. With the media as cheerleader, the coup has marched on. The ruling party and the legislature have been easily set aside — much as Indira Gandhi did. But what is even more striking is the way in which the so-called Opposition has caved in. The failure of the Opposition is not merely in its inability to fight back but more in its inability to grasp the severity of the moment and its willingness to share the same traits of autarchy.
Trump relied on megalomania; Indira Gandhi, too, was carried away by her own image. But in the present moment, we have a combination of megalomania with systemic ingredients ensuring that in an Orwellian fashion, democracy will not be defined by what ought to be, but on the basis of what is claimed as democracy. His vote share notwithstanding, Trump could muster only a handful and only for a few hours to claim that they constitute the people of the US. In India’s case, with much less vote share, a large section is willing to keep their faith in the new idea of democracy constituted by victimhood and dominance as entitlements of majority.
So, laugh as we may at the situation America finds itself in, it is as well that we are aware of our own willingness to sustain an executive coup.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2021, under the title “The march of the coup”. The write, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics
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