As the world watches a tumultuous campaign in the United States presidential elections that are also toxic and full of uncertainties, KALYANI SHANKAR, who has lived and worked in the and has authored books on the US and Indo-US ties, explores possibilities and attempts some comparisons between the two democracies’ electoral and post-electoral processes.

Will the United States President Donald Trump leave the White House if he is defeated? What if the results are contested by either of the candidates – Sitting President Donald Trump or former vice president Joe Biden? Now that Trump is back after his Covid-19 attack from the hospital, he is preparing to resume his campaign with elections scheduled for November 3.

Trump has been preparing for such an eventuality and claimed often elections would be rigged before voting takes place and he once again reiterated his suspicion in his first public debate with his opponent Joe Biden.  

Can one expect such voter fraud and rigging in a country like the United States? In one of his press conferences Trump even said that he would not move out of the White House.  

Every four years since the year 1787 when the first American President George Washington took oath on January 20, the president-elect vows before the nation:  “ I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will do the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the  United States.”  This swearing in ceremony allows for the smooth transition of power.  

The debate on whether Trump would concede defeat and leave the White House if Biden wins the ballot began after Trump has sent many signals that he would dispute if he did not win. If there’s a close race this year, perhaps the candidates could take a cue from the past.

It is not as if the US had not witnessed this kind of disputes.  At least four times in 1876, 1888, 1960 and 2000 the country witnessed such disputes about the presidential poll results. The last of them in 2000, between George W. Bush Jr. and Al Gore created ripples. Gore conceded defeat on the election night but retracted his concession the next day when he learnt that the vote in Florida was too close to call. Many states were still using the punch card ballot, a voting system created in the 1960s.  The Americans realised that the outdated technology created a problem in Florida. Voters who had thought they were voting for Gore unknowingly voted for another candidate. Al Gore conceded defeat the day after the US Supreme Court ruled the recount unconstitutional.

One may recall that the dispute persisted for several days. In India, the then Chief Election Commissioner, T N Seshan had famously offered to help out should the election authorities in the US ask.  Bush won by a narrow margin and that is now part of contemporary history.  

   Another aspect of American elections came into play in 2016. The US witnessed a stunning upset when Trump, high on his populist, nationalist campaign, lost the popular vote, but won the electoral college to become the president. No other country has this arrangement that in effect negates the popular vote a people cast.

As for the current polls, Trump said recently  “I know you’re going to be raising your hand, with me we may end up in a dispute for a long time, because that’s the way they want it,’ he said.” Trump refused to say if he would peacefully transfer power if voted out of office.

Actually, Trump is preparing for his defence from right now. He could blame mail-in voting if he loses in November. “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election,” Trump told Fox News’s Chris Wallace during a recent White House interview.

Trump could dispute the results and refuse to concede. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court might be asked to decide. There are many things which could go wrong. There are problems with the voting machines, election officials, foreign interference and above all. the Covid-19 pandemic. And we are talking of the world’s richest democracy!  

 The Washington Post had reported in July that even Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival, doesn’t discount the possibility that Trump would make himself difficult to dislodge, but he hoped that others in government would get the job done. The US political analysts apprehend that there was a reasonable fear that Trump could take such a dangerous  step. But he needs the support of the executive and judiciary. Will he receive it, and to what outcome?

The US Congress Speaker, Nancy Pelosi , is right when she says that the Democrats must win with a huge margin that Trump can’t challenge the results.

 Even in the first of the three debates, the president refused to say whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power if he lost. He said ,“We are going to see what happens.” The game is wide open.

  A comparison with India is appropriate. It presents a contrast. One must point out that in this world’s largest democracy, so far seventeen times the transfer of power has taken place and  smoothly. Mrs Indira Gandhi who had imposed the Emergency and had conducted elections, went out, facilitating a smooth transfer of power. The same thing happened after the shock defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government in 2004. The Vajpayee Government that lasted for just 13 days, had gone out without any fuss or protest, promising to “go to the people”, which it did.

  Indeed, smooth power transfer has been the hallmark of the Indian democracy, notwithstanding flaws in the way it works. Even short-lived governments in states have gone out of office, unsung.  Among the recent cases are those of B S Yeddiyurappa in Karnataka and Devendra Fadanvis in Maharashtra.  

 Among the older cases, Jagdambika Pal was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister for just a day  in 1998 after the Kalyan Singh government was dismissed by then Governor Romesh Bhandari.

There was a unique situation witnessed in the UP Vidhan Sabha and it remains unprecedented in the annals of India’s legislative history. Kalyan Singh and Pal were seated on either side of the Speaker in the Vidhan Sabha, while the legislators voted for their choice of CM. Kalyan Singh won by an easy majority, and on February 23, 1998, the High Court reinstated the Kalyan government.

 Unlike in some countries including the neighbouring Pakistan, there has been no military coup in India.

As late former President Pranab Mukherjee had once said, the Indian democracy has moved from strength to strength as the transfer of power from individuals as also from political parties has never posed any problem.

Kalyani Shankar is a Delhi- based political commentator and currently consulting editor of the web portal "The Print" as also a syndicated columnist. She is a senior journalist, political analyst and a keen observer of Indo-US relations.

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