Brazil’s US Capitol-Like Siege Ominous For All Democracies, India Included

FILE - Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, storm the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 8, 2023. Planalto is the official workplace of the president of Brazil. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)


For those who support freedom and governments elected by popular vote, the storming of Brazil’s top democratic institutions is a worrisome development. In a copycat attack in the capital Brasilia, similar to the one on the US Capitol on January 6, 2020, rampaging mobs on Sunday backed by right-wing, conservative forces clearly undermined democratic choices and a peaceful change of power.

Though the vanquished former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has not directly supported the attack on the state’s institutions, he has neither condemned it. The mob, on January 8, made up of Bolsonaro supporters, resorted to violence to express frustration at their leader’s loss to leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the recent election.

Yet, the fact that they thought it necessary to mount the anarchist attack shows that a defining line has been crossed in the practice of democracy, in which elections play the key role.

Inspiration from US Capitol attack

On January 6, 2020, the world was stunned at defeated presidential re-run candidate Donald Trump’s audacious attempt to egg his supporters to “retrieve the stolen vote”, a claim made to convey to his supporters that he had lost by subterfuge rather than in a fair and free election. Though this accusation proved to be false and did not have supporters even within his administration and the Republican Party, a section of Trump’s rag-tag loyalists, some armed, tried to stage a coup of sorts to overturn the results.

The coup did not work, thanks among others to the then Vice-President Mike Pence who fended off pressure to neutralise Joe Biden’s victory and ratify Trump. But the attack breached an unwritten convention – that of respecting the popular mandate. The copycat Brazil storming has also confirmed the worst fears of democrats, that the US incident could “inspire” losers elsewhere in other democracies to try out similar stunts.

Backdoor entry to power in India

The US first and now Brazil have shown that democracy is creaking under strain. Vested interests are no longer keen on playing a fair game, one that provides a level playing field and allows people to take a call on who should govern them.

The two instances are crucial learning curves for India, which has thrived as an elected liberal parliamentary democracy for seven decades (except for 21 months during the Emergency). Until now, there has never been a situation in India where a vanquished leader of a political party or their supporters have violently challenged their defeat. On the contrary, losers have been gracious and acknowledged the will of the people respectfully. All challenges have been either in the courts or in the Election Commission, as mandated by law.

This is not to imply that everything is hunky-dory in India as far as elections are concerned. Without having to storm any state institution, the ruling BJP, even if in a losing position, appears to have mastered the art of coming to power by “attracting” rival party legislators into its fold. The electorate, in state Assembly elections, may have voted against the BJP, or not given a majority to any single party.

Obviously the verdict, by inference, is for a coalition government. When it turns out to be a non-BJP coalition, in a matter of months the arrangement comes apart and the BJP occupies power – through the back door. In other words, the electorate’s verdict stands subverted. The examples are innumerable – among them, Karnataka earlier and the latest, Maharashtra.

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The process, which initially evoked considerable indignation, drew condemnation and expressions of dismay, is so completely normalised now it hardly triggers a squeak even among the affected opposition parties. As some cynical voters say, it does not matter who you vote for in India today. The BJP will eventually make it to the gaddi.

In the footsteps of Africa

Supporters of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro would probably be surprised to know that there are other “discreet” ways to hijack elections, India style.

If the storming of the US Capitol and Brazil’s institutions housing the National Congress, Presidential Palace and Supreme Court had only been the beginning of such attacks, it could have been dismissed as aberrations. But the fact is that these two prominent powers are only following in the footsteps of several African nations which routinely have seen widespread violence in presidential elections.

Kenya has been the worst affected with all-pervasive election-related violence for the last couple of decades at least. The 2007 general elections were among the worst when at least 1000 people were killed in violence that erupted after elections. In the latest August 2022 elections too, despite efforts to curb post-election violence, the defeat of Raila Odinga brought out his supporters onto the streets, protesting his loss.

Fortunately, violence was only sporadic and not to the extent of previous ones. The court finally ruled in favour of the winner William Ruto.

Nigeria is another country in Africa that has seen widespread election-related violence after the loss of candidates. Violence spiked after 2015, with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) being the target. After the 2019 polls, more than 50 attacks were registered across Nigeria against the INEC. With general elections due this year in Nigeria, there is widespread apprehension of violence.

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With conservative, right-wing leaders and political parties in contention for power worldwide, not coincidentally, the instances of post-electoral violence too appears to be increasing. Rising xenophobia, religious fundamentalism and a growing global economic crisis are not only aiding a sharp turn to the right politically, these are being accompanied by intolerance against dissent, pluralism and the democratic space.

All these years, democracy wherever it was practised, was considered above board, people’s choices were viewed as sacrosanct and political players accommodated the opposition, even if reluctantly. But no more. And that is what makes election-related violence in Brazil, or the US, and countries in Africa ominous for other democracies. India included.