As the US Election Day, November 3, 2020, draws nearer, American voters have a monumental choice to make. As I prepare to cast my ballot, the words of ‘Babasaheb’ Bhimrao Ambedkar come to mind. A towering intellectual, his thoughts on the perils facing democracies have relevance far beyond India’s shores, and can help us understand US’s political journey.
While many members of India’s Constituent Assembly had been educated in England, Ambedkar studied at Columbia University, New York, in the 1920s. At Columbia, he was deeply influenced by philosopher John Dewey’s ideas about education, equality, and justice. Ambedkar also observed the US’ racial inequities.
In a letter to civil rights pioneer WEB Du Bois, Babasaheb wrote that “[t]here is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”
Given recent discussions about the parallels between India’s treatment of Dalits and anti-Black racism in the US, as well as reports of caste discrimination among Indians working in Silicon Valley, his observation resonates to this day.
After returning to India, Babasaheb famously warned that “democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic…”. This was a statement that could well be applied, quite literally, to the United States. Despite his misgivings about democracy in India, Dr Ambedkar worked tirelessly to provide the country with a progressive foundation.
On his first visit to India, President Barack Obama recognised Babasaheb’s singular and far-reaching significance, saying that “no matter who you are or where you come from, every person can fulfill their God-given potential, just as a Dalit like Dr Ambedkar could lift himself up and pen the words of the constitution that protects the rights of all Indians… every person deserves the same chance to live in security and dignity, to get an education, to find work, to give their children a better future.”
The political journeys of the world’s two largest democracies have intersected at critical points. India’s freedom struggle inspired and shaped Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the American civil rights movement. In fact, the pivotal 1965 Selma to Montogomery march was modeled on the Dandi March of 1930.
As an early-stage immigrant to the US, Kamala Harris’s mother, Shamayala Gopalan, participated in the civil rights protests of the 1960s. In turn, the civil rights movement, by challenging racist immigration quotas that restricted immigration from non-European countries, helped shape the lives of the four million persons of Indian origin who live in the US today. And, this year, the George Floyd protests inspired demonstrations against police brutality in India.
What might Babasaheb have had to say about the US elections today?
A speech he gave on November 25 1949, just months before the Constitution of India was adopted, provides some clues. In this address, he spoke with trepidation – and hope. Babasaheb recalled India’s historical experience with democracy, wisdom that it lost over time because of the “treachery” of some of its leaders.
Ambedkar viewed the concentration of power in one individual as a particularly dangerous phenomenon, warning that enabling a single individual to subvert democratic institutions would be a “sure road to degradation”. He asked Indians to adhere to the rule of law and to recognise that a political democracy needs, for its very survival, social and economic equality.
US President Donald Trump represents the very dangers Ambedkar spoke of. He was impeached by the US House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – a form of treachery. Trump’s entire tenure has been marked by escalating acts of institutional subversion. And his administration has demonstrated a reckless disregard for the inequalities that threaten American integrity and prosperity.
On the eve of the 2020 elections, Americans voters might find guidance in Ambedkar’s concluding words in that speech:
“If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong… Let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path… nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.”
The demagoguery, racism, ineptitude, and callousness of President Donald Trump has been on open display throughout his first term. He represents a clear and present danger to the US republic. In contrast, Joe Biden’s long career in public service demonstrates a record of respect for rule of law, inclusivity, and pragmatic policy-making. It is time for Americans to serve their country by voting to remove President Trump and his enablers from office.
Bidisha Biswas is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. Her twitter handle is @Bee_the_Wonk .