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Trump threat to jail Clinton borrows a dangerous practice from India

It was a remarkable moment in US electoral history, with most observers suggesting that never before had one candidate threatened to jail someone if elected to power.

us presidential election Updated: Oct 10, 2016 16:00 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
Donald Trump,Hillary Clinton,US presidential debate
US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump participate a town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.(AFP Photo)

In the second United States presidential debate, while discussing her use of a private email server, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton he would have a special prosecutor to ‘look into your situation’. When Clinton responded that it was good that someone with Trump’s temperament was not in charge of law, the Republican nominee hit back with a chilling one liner, “Because you would be in jail.”

It was a remarkable moment in US electoral history, with most observers suggesting that never before had one candidate threatened to jail someone if elected to power. Many saw it as Trump’s willingness to abuse his office and authority for personal revenge. This - however - energised his own base, for what unites them is a deep dislike for Hillary Clinton. For them, Trump’s announcement was a step to bring her misdeeds to justice.

In the US, this kind of open threat of punishing a rival is unprecedented. Some have even termed it fascism.

But a quick comparative view shows that such threats are quite common in our democratic set-up.

The context, of course, is entirely different.

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India does not have a presidential system; neither is there a culture of direct debates between leaders. But elections have been accompanied by threats of getting back at rivals or bringing them to justice for misdeeds - depending on where you stand on the political spectrum - through democratic history.

Here are some quick examples.

In 1977, Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency and called for elections. Very quickly, a broad range of opposition parties came together under the common umbrella of Janata Party. One of their key campaign promises was to expose emergency excesses, restore democratic rights and civil liberties, and punish Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay.

The Janata won. After coming to power, it set up several commissions of inquiry - most importantly, the Shah commission - to investigate Emergency excesses; special courts were set up; Indira Gandhi was arrested briefly. Ironically, all this helped the Congress leader - and she came back stronger in the following elections.

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Before the 1989 election, VP Singh moved away from the Congress and first set up Jan Morcha, and then the Janata Dal. His key plank against Rajiv Gandhi was the Bofors scam - where he accused the PM and his associates to have received kickbacks while procuring guns for the Indian Army. Singh claimed he had in his pocket details of relevant bank accounts; he promised to put all Bofors papers in Parliament if elected; and act against Gandhi. The anti-corruption message struck a chord. The Congress’ seats dipped, Singh became PM, but unlike his mother, Rajiv did not have to go to jail.

The more stark examples of rivals threatening to punish each other are in the states, particularly Tamil Nadu. Both the DMK and AIADMK have repeatedly accused each other of corruption in the run up to elections, and promised action if elected. When Karunanidhi was in power, Jayalalitha was imprisoned in 1996 for a disproportionate assets case and her homes were raided. When Jayalalitha was in power, she returned the favour - in 2001, she got the state police to arrest Karunanidhi in the middle of the night and raid his house. The police entered his house, broke doors, dragged him out of bed, and down the stairs, before detaining the veteran leader, who was then in his late seventies.

More recently, Arvind Kejriwal threatened to take action against Sheila Dixit for alleged corruption when he was contesting the Delhi elections. Once Congress came to power in Haryana, a case against Om Prakash Chautala was expedited. The BJP, in turn, promised to take action against Bhupinder Hooda and Robert Vadra on land deals if elected to power. Indeed, when Narendra Modi was campaigning in 2014, he promised action against what he termed as UPA’s corrupt regime.

In India, there is another way in which rivals are threatened. Once in power, parties set off pliant investigative agencies to find dirt about their adversaries. These cases are then used as a bargaining tool to neutralise the Opposition, or win support for a possible legislation.

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These are just a few, representative examples. It could be read as vendetta politics. It could also be read as the system of checks and balances inherent in Indian democracy, which makes incumbents accountable for actions and thus is acceptable in electoral contests.

But what is beyond doubt is that it represents institutional corrosion, where executive power is used to hound and lock in rivals.

If Trump has its way, the US would be borrowing a dangerous practice of Indian democracy.

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First Published: Oct 10, 2016 15:38 IST