The Politics of Protest
Delhi's Red Fort and the US Capitol Building, both breached by unruly demonstrators - what do these protests in the world's two biggest democracies have in common?
Three weeks ago, angry demonstrators stormed the Capitol, the seat of the United States Congress, and managed to get into the Senate chamber. The Capitol is an iconic building at the heart of the world's most powerful democracy. It came at a deeply symbolic, indeed solemn, moment - as members of Congress were assembled to confirm the transfer of power to a new, and duly elected, president.
This week, angry demonstrators stormed the Red Fort, the onetime seat of the Mughal Empire, and managed to hoist their own standard from the ramparts where India's prime minister unfurls the national flag on independence day. The fort is an iconic building at the heart of the world's most populous democracy. It came at a deeply symbolic, indeed solemn, moment - as the nation's leaders were assembled to mark Republic Day.
You can see where I am heading with this ...
I don't want to stretch the argument too far. If the pro-Trump 'patriots' ever met face-to-face with the farmer activists of Punjab and Haryana, there would be blank incomprehension all round. They live in different worlds - have hugely different priorities and concerns - and reflect vastly different political cultures.
But you do wonder whether some of Delhi's protestors, noticing just how much attention accompanied the storming of a building in Washington so emblematic of power, looked for ways of replicating that action in the Indian capital. It certainly seems that the flag-flying at the Red Fort was planned rather than spontaneous.
Neither of these protests was on a par with the storming of Russia's Winter Palace in 1917, or the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789. They do not herald a revolutionary upsurge. There is no new order waiting to be born. Indeed, in both Washington and Delhi, the protestors are - if anything - conservative, opposing change, and seeking to uphold a status quo, real or imaginary.
The farmers camped around Delhi - and briefly parading through the city - have proved themselves to be by far the most formidable opposition that Narendra Modi has faced in almost seven years in power. Opposition parties in parliament have neither the numbers nor the leadership - nor indeed the common purpose - to make an impact.
The protest camps around Delhi had won broad public support because cultivators have a special place in Indian society and because the farmers displayed fortitude and humility in pursuit of their goals. And those aims are very limited - the withdrawal of the farm legislation. The violence on Republic Day may imperil that support - though, by the often turbulent standards of Indian street demonstrations, it was more an affray than a riot.
The right-wing racists in America are altogether more sinister - and as the attack on the Capitol building demonstrated, more violent. While the mayhem and deaths on January 6th served to unite the US political mainstream in defence of democratic institutions, a significant part of Trump's Republican Party continues to sympathise with the rioters. It makes you wonder which democracy is more secure.
Both the United States and India were born out of the same Empire, though almost two centuries apart. And they have a rare political achievement in common. In neither country has there - since independence - been a revolution or successful coup or violent transfer of power. Not many nations can say that - certainly not Britain or France, China or Russia, Spain or Italy, Pakistan or Bangladesh.
One other point in common - in both Washington and Delhi, the forces of law and order have been relatively restrained in their response to the protests. Indeed, the Capitol police force was disgracefully lax - the National Guard, once deployed, was much more visible, and perhaps because of that didn't need to deploy lethal force.
It's so different from another protest at a seat of power - the students' demonstration in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which was violently dispersed by the Chinese army with the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. That was a revolutionary moment in the making, so the stakes were higher. And China was not, and is not, a democracy, so the state could not easily be held accountable.
Democracies don't simply allow the expression of dissent; argument and protest are their lifeblood, and demonstrators sometimes save elected politicians from their own follies. In Britain thirty years ago, protests and riots against the poll tax led to the repeal of one of the most regressive and reviled taxes of modern times. More recently, mass protests against the war in Iraq have made governments much more reluctant to pursue military interventions overseas.
The right-wing protestors in the United States are a voluble but increasingly marginalised presence. But in India - after Shaheen Bagh and now the farmers' movement - street politics may well prove to have staying power. After all, this style of (largely) non-violent resistance is very much in the Gandhian tradition.