In 2017, I went with my family on a trip to the Wagah border — the border between India and Pakistan. We waded through throngs of people to secure a seat at the daily show of jingoistic excess. Pakistani and Indian soldiers — adorned in orange, plumed headgear — marched in lockstep on either side of the border, encouraged by a cavalcade of trumpets and drums. Soldiers from opposite sides glared at each other as they engaged in contests — seeing who could hold a note for the longest time or flail their leg more vigorously in the air.
Calling it a show may seem odd, disrespectful even, but that’s what it was. A theatrical extravaganza, meant to evoke a sense of national glory in the hearts of its spectators as we sat there like dumbfounded children. While walking back from the show, I saw a billboard: “Welcome the biggest democracy in the world.”
I was unsettled. Maybe it was the blood-red serif font of the dilapidated structure, but it was more likely the flagrant lie being promulgated. “India, a democracy?” I thought, as I headed in our air-conditioned car back to a plush hotel. I stayed up that night, thinking about how a country where journalists were murdered after publishing critiques of the government could consider itself a democracy. But the next day, immersed in tourist expeditions and buttery parathas, my mind was at ease; the discomfort of the previous day’s event had dissipated.
Growing up, politics were the only exception to the optimism which characterized my approach to life. An awareness of rampant corruption and eroding democratic systems always existed on my horizon, but so did an awareness of my immunity to these problems. I was repulsed by politics yet insulated from its ramifications, which made my apathy that much easier to cultivate. I am not alone in my detachment: a large portion of the educated elite turn a blind eye to the systemic bigotry towards minorities that plagues our nation.
Today, I find it hard to call contemporary India a functional democracy. A nation whose government announced a three-week national lockdown — that lasted for four months — with four hours’ notice cannot be considered functional. Nor can a nation that passes a bill targeting pathways to citizenship only for certain religious groups be considered a democracy. And yet it is easy to criticize a nation from a laptop screen 9,000 miles away.
Nevertheless, it would be similarly problematic to say that the United States offers a better model of democracy than India does. The Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on the tenebrous tentacles of racial injustice that extend deep into the country’s underbelly. Moreover, with an incumbent president who has conveyed his intention to hold on to power at any cost, it is hard not to see the country as slipping into authoritarianism. The country is fractured along ideological lines, and the United States threatens to suck itself into a self-made whirlpool of violence: More and more Americans along the political spectrum have admitted that they are willing to use violent tactics if the results of the election are unfavorable. If the population succumbs to the impulse to drink from the poisoned chalice of hatred, already fragile systems of democracy could shatter.
It seems, then, that the only bulwark against the total collapse of democratic systems is the people of this nation — all of you. Here is where I have hope. Despite the challenges ahead, America’s resistance to political apathy, combined with its love for democracy, is its greatest strength. I admire this, especially as a member of an educated elite back home that has failed to act.
This commitment to democracy in the United States includes exercising the right to vote. And yet, this is not enough. To sustain democratic systems, the nation must commit to a peaceful transfer of power, regardless of the victor.
Continue to exercise political rights; stage a protest. But if the outcome of the election is one that all of us are desperately hoping won’t occur, your role as the keeper of democracy becomes even more significant. You can be the voice of opposition, but your message should not be tainted by hatred. The world is looking at you to set a precedent for the transfer of democratic power. I hope there never comes a day when an American citizen sees the word democracy on a billboard in their hometown and feels as disillusioned as I did.
You are an exemplification of these United States, just as I am an exemplification of my country. Do better.
PRADZ SAPRE is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org