The US Presidential Race : The Indian Lessons

img1 Albert Thyrniang
16 Nov 2020

A history teacher once skipped his usual lecture to tell us, “Learn history but also learn from history. Don’t just study history. Make history. Be a first doctor, engineer, professor, professional sportsperson, professional musician and so on from your locality or village.” 

The US election 2020 is historic. Joseph Robinette Biden Jr better known as Joe Biden is on his way to the White House displacing the incumbent president Donald Trump. The suspense was broken when the Keystone State, Pennsylvania with its crucial 20 electoral votes propelled the 77 year old to more than the required 270 Electoral College votes. In January the two-term former 47th Vice-President will be the 46th president of the United States of America. The ex-senator for Delaware for 36 years will be the oldest President of the world’s most powerful country. He has repeated the rare feat (Bill Clinton was the only other when he defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992) of sending a sitting president packing after one term. The Democrat who braved personal losses (death of wife, daughter and son) had to withdraw from the presidential race twice, in 1988 and 2008. To make such a stunning comeback at 77 is truly remarkable. Enviously he has polled the highest votes in history (74 million to Trump’s 70 million according to the latest information). Hats off!

As opposed to Trump who is viewed as a hardliner, a symbol of white supremacy, a religious fanatic, an exclusive politician, Biden on the other hand is a moderate, a liberal, an inclusive personality who stands for all Americans, Whites, Blacks, African, Asian and Latino origins, LGBTs, etc. In his victory speech he reaffirmed to be a unifier and a healer. His personal religious beliefs did not unwelcome others with a different outlook. 

With Biden’s win, America is returning to sanity. Clearly voters have had enough. The four years of polarisation, rhetoric and undermining democracy were long enough to oust the arrogant Trump. Indeed Trump’s casual attitude to Coronavirus extracted a heavy price. His initial proclamation that the ‘Chinese virus’ would disappear like magic proved disastrous as very quickly his country jumped every country in term of cases and deaths. After four years his promised health policy has not been out. The voters punished him for his failure on the healthcare front particularly the catastrophic COVID-19 fight. Americans have learned their lessons. His catchy slogan ‘make America great again’ was nothing more than a catchword. During the four year tenure America was on the rapid decline economically and otherwise. Hopefully the voters of the 50 states have corrected it.

In India when will we see reason? When will we learn our lessons? When will we reject religious polarisation and bigotry? When will we cast off majoritarianism?  When will we embrace inclusiveness, unity and pluralism?  When will we discard dangerous policies of the present regime? When will we be convinced that we were taken for a ride by the slogans of’Sabka Saath, SabkaVikas, SabkaVishwas’, ‘Make in India’, ‘Minimum government maximum governance’? When will we shunt religious nationalism? When will we see our democracy is being threatened? When will we close our ears on calls to vote religious and caste lines? When will we focus on jobs, employment, education, healthcare, infrastructure, the economy and development? When will our elections be performance and achievement based? The Bihar election results suggest we enslaved by personality cult. It is scary that in 2024 Ram temple in Ayodhya will override everything else. The Americans have learnt their lessons in four years. Will we not learn ours in ten years? Will we have a Biden in India?

The history scripted by the U.S. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris is even more impressive. A national daily has listed her many ‘Firsts’.  A first time Senator, she is the first woman, first Black and first Indian-American to be elected as Vice president of the United States. She is one of only three Asian Americans in the Senate and she’s the first Indian-American ever to serve in the chamber besides being the first woman and first African-American and Indian-origin person to be the district attorney for San Francisco. Born to two immigrant parents- a Black Jamaican father and an Indian mother and called the “female Obama” Ms. Harris is the only third woman to contest the Vice-presidency.  In her victory speech the lady with roots from Chennai said she will not be the last to occupy the second highest office.

It is surprising that the ‘Land of Possibilities’ is able to elect a woman Vice-President only in 2020. Since 1776 (when America became independent) there has never been a woman Vice President. It took 244 years to have one. How long will be the wait to see a lady President? The records of third world countries should put USA to shame. Way back in 1960 Sri Lanka had the first woman Prime Minister, In 1966 Indira Gandhi was India’s Prime Minister. Many more countries in all continents have produced female heads of state/heads of government much before the US. A conservative thought to granting equality is obvious as women’s right to vote became a reality only in 1920, almost a 150 years after Independence.

For our benefit we return to our shores. Not only the 1.3 million Indian-American voters who played crucial roles in key battleground states like Pennsylvania to ensure Ms Harris’ and her boss’s victory but the whole of India is celebrating her greatest achievement. While we in India pride ourselves whenever individuals of Indian origin abroad make a name for themselves our own records reflect hypocrisy. In 2004, unruly and uncivilised opposition and protests of ‘patriots’ forced Sonia Gandhi to relinquish the Prime Minister’s chair though she was constitutionally eligible as the Supreme Court had upheld her citizenship. A lady MP threatened to tonsure her head in protest if the then President of the INC was invited to be sworn in. Even today the widow of late Rajiv Gandhi is subjected to disrespectful comments, ridicule and even character assassination.  The hate extends to her son and daughter.

We might have had women occupying the office of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chair Person, Chief Ministers et al but political empowerment of women is still a long way in the country. Right from the highest decision making body, the parliament to the grass root institution, the Panchayati Raj men dominate unchallenged. The current Lok Sabha has the highest number of women representatives since independence but they number only 78 accounting for a mere 14.39% of the total strength. In the Rajya Sabha out of 242 members only 25 are women. In March 2019 a report revealed that only 9% of MLAs and MPs were women. The Women’s Reservation Bill that proposes to reserve 1/3rd of all seats in the Lower house of Parliament and in all state Legislative Assemblies for women will probably never see the light of day. Though the Rajya Sabha passed the bill in 2010 the Lok Sabha has never taken it up. Apart from conservative outlook abominable crimes against women are the order of the day. Political parties continue to allot tickets to candidates accused of crimes against women.

The Northeast is seen as a progressive corner of the country but women are almost kept out of political representation.  In all the states of the region there is massive participation of women voters but their representation is negligible. Assam, the biggest state has only two (out of 14) woman MPs in Lower House and one (out of 7) in Upper House. In the State Assembly only 14 out of 126 are women. Presently in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Tripura the Legislative Assembly is graced by just three women.  Nagaland and Mizoram have zero woman lawmaker. Manipur has two women legislators. In 2017 election it was a shocker when Ms. Irom Sharmila, called as the Iron Lady of Manipur for spending 16-years in hunger strike against Armed Forces’ Special Powers Act (AFSPA) could not even muster 100 votes. 

In the three Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in Meghalaya, Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC) and Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC) have two, one and nil (out of 30) councillors, respectively. 

Not only in the mainstream politics but in tribal traditional institutions too women are invisible in the ‘Seven Sisters’. In Meghalaya women are still barred from being members of the Dorbar Syiem (Councils of traditional chiefs). Only recently the High Court permitted women to participate in the Dorbar Shnong (Village council). In Garo Hills though Nokmas (village/clan heads) are women the actual work is done by a male, in most cases by the son in law (chawari). It must be noted that Meghalaya is a matrilineal society. In Nagaland the tribal body Naga Hoho has no female member. The influential organisation resolutely opposed the 33% reservation for women under the pretext that it is anti-Naga customary laws. Something is drastically wrong. Debate and deliberation to rectify the imbalance particularly in the political sphere is the need. In crimes rape and sexual assaults are a common occurrence.

The US election results are fascinating but are we inclined to see the implications?

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