In 2002 when Delhi Metro launched its first service – most said it was a matter of time before the swanky trains and stations were vandalised. I - as a fellow Delhite then - agreed. 18 years later, Delhi Metro isn’t just the city’s lifeline but – cutting across the political divide – also its pride.
People dreaded political vandalism when far-right politicians took power in India in 1999 and the USA in 2016. While fears about India fructified only in 2014, with Donald Trump they took hold immediately. Today internal divisions in both countries threaten stability as changes brought about seem permanent to many.
Yet we all know nothing is as permanent as change. It’s especially true for politics and parties.
Led by the ideals of abolitionist president Abraham Lincoln, most Republicans were defenders of Blacks a hundred years ago, while many sections of the Democrats were white-supremacists. In 1898 - Wilmington, North Carolina - 2000 armed white men led by Southern Democrats – in the nation’s only known coup – attacked and overthrew the elected government of the state, raped women, and killed over 60 Blacks.
In India, though the Congress party has played the secular card for over a century, data analysed by professor Christophe Jaffrelot proves that it is only fractionally better than the BJP when it comes to the betterment of minorities.
The problem is thus thinking in absolutes when life and politics are anything but. A better analysis comes with thinking of systems politicians encourage, discourage, or set-up based on social, geographic, cultural, economic, historic, religious, or political reasons.
Looking at the US that way makes you realise that whoever wins the presidency today, America might already have lost.
In a recent interview in the Checks and Balances podcast by The Economist, Sean Spicer – President Donald Trump’s first White House Press Secretary – said that the President’s greatest achievement is electing three judges to the Supreme Court thus tilting it conservatively. Many Trump supporters agree, elated by systems he’s set up that will outlast his presidency.
When the world hears Make American Great Again, the President’s supporters hear Make America Conservative Again. In four years – to quote a Financial Times article he has, “allowed Republican lawmakers to dramatically reshape the US judicial system by installing rightwing judges at a pace almost unmatched in American history…. Almost a third of all active federal judges on the US appeals courts were appointed by Mr. Trump. At the district court level, the front line for civil and criminal cases, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has continued to confirm Mr. Trump’s appointees at a rapid clip.”
Many of these positions being for life, these appointments threaten to regress many advances made in rights and civil liberties not just for LGBTQ+, women, or Blacks, but every American.
Though justice was denied to many minorities, the idea of America as the ‘land of the free’ stuck because laws were mostly just and accepted by all even if not followed to its letter and spirit.
Yet, laws are mere words whose power lies in their interpretation by judges and implementation by law enforcement. Putting any colouring to it like enlisting conservative judges – is not just antithetical to the very idea of justice, it is harmful to social harmony and tends to gradually erode a nation.
A metaphor for this was visible in the swearing-in of Amy Coney Barret to the Supreme Court – who for the first time in almost 150 years, was elected with zero support from the opposition party.
China may be the world’s second most powerful economy, yet ask any refugee or immigrant anywhere their preferred resettlement location, and almost no one will name China. Most prefer North America or Western Europe not just for their prosperity but for the rule of law interpreted from the standard of universal justice and not prevalent social, political, religious, or cultural ideas.
What America’s rule of law enabled was the creation of systems – educational, social, political, and financial that attracted the best minds from the world whose work made the USA a superpower. Immigration is the secret of America’s greatness not just in science and technology but turns out even it's military.
The number of veterans not born in the US is around 530,000 “representing 3 percent of all 18.6 million veterans nationwide. Additionally, almost 1.9 million veterans are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Together, the 2.4 million veterans of immigrant origin, either because they themselves are immigrants or are the children of immigrants, account for 13 percent of all veterans.”
US’s science and technology sector fares better. 34.5% of doctoral-degree chemists and 53.1% of doctoral-degree chemical engineers were naturalised on non-US citizens in 2017. In 2007 24% of US patents were held by at least one non-US citizen inventor.
As per this Chronicle article, “The list of American companies co-founded by immigrants includes Google, Yahoo, eBay, Qualcomm, VMware, Facebook, and many more. A 2016 study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of the 87 tech start-ups valued at over $1 billion at the time of the study were co-founded by immigrants.”
Immigration is not the only effective system attacked by President Trump. He even undermined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aka CDC which failed its pandemic response despite being the best in the world. Ironically, China which not only modeled its organisation on CDC but even named it the same – managed to control the virus brilliantly after a terrible first wave.
Thus while we focus on Trump-inspired angry, white, venom-spewing Americans, what is actually making the world worse are good systems President Trump upset or those he set up to influence the nation long after he’s gone.
The Delhi Metro – in its first week – did see the vandalism everyone expected. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation dealt with it by quickly creating rules and systems. The result is that those systems not only saved the Metro but transformed travel and redefined an entire city.
Democratic, fair-minded people watching the US election results today should hence remember that systems can be put to stop and indeed reverse the fall of almost anything, even empires. They should realise that cursing the darkness may feel good, getting down to the dirty work of inventing light bulbs is infinitely better.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)