DEMOCRACIES ON TRIALS! Guest Author – Satish Bhatnagar, Ph.D.
Finally, after ten days of political posturing, the curtain fell today. Donald J. Trump, the former President of the United States (45th), has been indicted by a Manhattan County Grand Jury (New York). In the US legal system, a District Attorney of a state can go after a citizen on his/her own accord, provided a Grand Jury votes in his/her favor.
Alvin Bragg is the first Black or Afro-American to be elected as the District Attorney (November, 2021). George Soros, a 92-year old New York City billionaire, donated one million dollars (the largest ever) to Bragg’s election campaign. On January 4, 2022, after three days in office, Bragg announced that his office would no longer prosecute low-level offenses such as fare evasion, resisting arrest, prostitution, and cannabis-related misdemeanors unless accompanied by a felony charge. That puts an asterisk on his indictment of Trump. But that is the universal nature of politics. In the pursuit of the ultimate power over people, politicians change, flex, break and bend laws all the time.
Who and What is the Grand Jury? Apart from some qualifications, like being a US citizen, people who serve on the Grand Jury (number could be more than two dozen) are chosen randomly from a list of voters in a district where indictment is initiated. In this case, people who elected Alvin Bragg as the District Attorney, are statistically of the same thinking when some of them were chosen for this Grand Jury. In fact, it was the second Grand Jury on Trump that Bragg had decided! Nevertheless, Grand Jury’s deliberations and votes are completely secret – no arguments, no discussions.
Thus, March 30, 2023 will go down in the US history when a former president was indicted. It does not mean that Trump has been found guilty. What it means is that now a trial will start, attorneys from both sides will present their cases before a judge and a jury (smaller). The jury’s verdict will decide whether Trump is guilty or not, and then would follow the presiding judge’s sentencing or acquittal. In the US, judges are elected or nominated by the US President.
Let me shift gears from the world’s oldest democracy in the US (nearly 240 years) to the largest, but relatively young democracy in India (75 years old). On March 23, 2023, Rahul Gandhi, a high-profile member of the Indian Parliament and once projected as the Prime Minister of India for the Congress Party in the 2014 elections, was found guilty. He was sentenced to two years of simple imprisonment, and given 30 days to appeal. The judgment was passed by a chief judicial magistrate in Surat (Gujarat). The case was brought by one Purnesh Modi, a 3-term member of the current Gujarat Assembly. The appointment of this magistrate is based upon his passing a competitive examination of the state judicial service and going through a service commission. Such a job is transferable within a state – unlike in the US.
What are their crimes? Nearly 20 years ago, Trump had a sexual fling with a hi-fi porn actress. In 2016, when Trump was running for the US presidency, his attorney supposedly paid this woman the sum of $130,000 in order for her to keep quiet – nothing illegal. However, Bragg believes that this hush money came from Trump’s election campaign funds, which is illegal – a federal crime. The law of a land is a law no matter what other countries may belittle it.
Mudslinging and character assassination are common tactics during election campaigns in democratic countries – more so both in India and the US. During a rally on April 13, 2019, just before the parliamentary polls, Rahul Gandhi said, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” In his speech, he then went on to name fugitive Indian diamond tycoon Nirav Modi, banned Indian Premier League boss Lalit Modi, and PM Narendra Modi. In the US legal system, defamation is a civil case, but in India it could be a civil or criminal one. In Rahul Gandhi’s case, this trial lasting for four years started as a criminal case.
What is at stake? It is the very essence of democracy! Current political leaders want to stick to power forever. Giving a touch of history, in 1783, the entire concept of the US was restricted to 13 states mainly on the eastern coast – hardly 1/10 of the US size today. There was not even a single country in the world that was democratic even in name. The world was run by kings, monarchs, despots, and dictators, and the like. The US became a beacon of its own kind. Its settlers remained united in their faith, language and culture. By the 1960s, the US emerged as the greatest nation in the history of the world.
Yes, the rise and fall of a nation is a lesson of history. Can I slow it down on my watch? In the last 25-30 years, militancy amongst the Afro-Americans has been taking over the US under the new mantra of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. New social norms are emerging and reverse racism is rising. Bringing the former president down will accelerate the fall of democracy. The US seems to be heading towards urban civil strifes, and a new kind of totalitarian government.
In India, the magistrate should have given at least 100 days to appeal instead of 30 days. Likewise, the Parliament should not have acted on the letter of the law in expelling Rahul Gandhi right away. They should have waited for the legal appeal process to complete its course at one more level. What if a higher court finds Rahul Gandhi innocent? The bottom line is that the politicians in both countries have in their minds their respective elections in 2024.
A sidebar: in the 1984 parliamentary elections, the Congress Party won a record number of seats – 414 out of 541 and BJP won only 2 seats! In the parliament, there was no official opposition party then. In the current Lok Sabha, Congress has 52 seats and the BJP has 303 out of 543. Again, there is no official opposition party! In politics, there is always a pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. In the mindset of power politics, if the opposition is muzzled out, then democracy would morph into one party rule – dictatorship. I see those signs emerging in the US. However, India faces a bigger challenge of external forces colluding with local anti-nationalist groups to break India.
The point is for the political leaders to show magnanimity of hearts and minds both in the US and India. It is failing in both countries at this critical juncture. The best feature of a democratic form of government is individual freedom. But excess of everything is bad – including individual freedom too!! It reminds me of a sage quote from the East that says that one’s freedom extends only up to the tip of one’s nose!
Satish C. Bhatnagar, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV 89154 Phone: 702-895-0383 Email: email@example.com
Adjunct Professor, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda (2019 – ) UNLV Faculty Senate (2018 – 2021)
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It is very constructive message!