On the face of it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump are as different as chalk and cheese. Modi comes from a poor background and has made it mainly on the strength of hard work and commitment to the RSS and Hindutva. Trump is from an affluent New York family, a playboy billionaire, a showman with a record of lewd sexist talk.
Yet there are similarities between the 69-year old BJP leader and his 73-plus American counterpart. Both have had a major impact on the politics of their countries and changed their political lexicons, often for the worse.
But Modi and Trump are not alone. The far-right is gaining legitimacy the world over. The camp includes UK’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro—who believes climate change is a myth and Hollywood actor Leonard diCaprio is responsible for the Amazon fires. Closer home, Philippine’s strongman President Rodrigo Duterte is in the club too. He believes it is alright to kill drug peddlers.
Forces that were on the fringes of national politics since World War II are staging a comeback as liberal values are under attack in many parts of the world.
Modi and Trump have personalised politics to the degree that at least in India, Modi is much more popular than the party he represents. The American presidential style of government has to some degree always left room for personal style, but both Democrats and Republicans have also always flagged off the party contours. Trump, a Washington “outsider” much like Modi, a relative greenhorn in national politics, have both changed the party to reflect their personalities.
Trump has changed the Republican party beyond recognition, according to American analysts. Good old fashioned values that Republicans always stood for have now changed to reflecting Trump’s very different political sayings. Politics in the Trump era is more transactional, in keeping with his belief that he is the ultimate dealmaker. Much of the party’s time is taken up in defending Trump and his policies. Trump’s support among Republicans is mainly because the President is a hit with their support base.
Modi is the face of the BJP and the poster boy of Hindutva. Even in state elections Modi takes centre-stage, though perhaps not always as effectively as in national elections. The difference is that Modi is committed to his party’s agenda and wants to create an ‘ideal Hindu state’, where all citizens including minorities must become culturally Hindus.
Both Modi and Trump ventilate hyper-nationalism. Trump wants to “Make America Great Again’’ meaning those before him, especially his predecessor Democratic former president Barak Obama, had sold out American interests. Obama was the target of Trump’s bruising barbs all through his 2016 election campaign. Coming into office, Trump undid most of Obama’s key foreign policy initiatives, from the Paris Climate Change Agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and the Iran nuclear agreement. Trump tore up all these pacts without a thought for international commitments. The bottomline for Trump is that he knows what’s best for the US.
Posing as a smart business tycoon, he projected himself as an ace dealmaker who will ensure that America is the final winner. Like Duterte, Trump also believes that climate change is a myth— created by the Chinese, in his view. Modi, thankfully, does not share these views.
Modi has projected himself as the one leader who knows what is best for India. The Congress is to blame for all ills. And while Obama was Trump’s bete noire, for Modi it is the Nehru-Gandhi family, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Even after completing a full five-year term and winning another, Modi continues to attack Nehru and point fingers at the Congress. The 2019 parliamentary elections was won by Modi not on the plank of his performance (the nation is still paying for that ill-fated demonetisation which backfired on the economy but not on Modi’s personal image). The Pulwama attack was expertly exploited by the Modi machinery for maximum advantage. Anyone questioning the government was dubbed pro-Pakistan and anti-national.
After 14 February 2019, nationalism became the centre-stage of Modi’s campaign. The areal attack by India in Pakistan’s Balakot, the dog fight the following day that ended with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s capture by Pakistan and his return as a hero, all played into the BJP narrative of a strong leader who, unlike Manmohan Singh and the Congress, could give a “fitting reply” to Pakistan. Where were the heroics of bailing out and then being captured in enemy territory is hard to say, but his return was turned into a major patriotic and national event.
The BJP rose to power by mixing religion with politics. Harping on “Muslim appeasement” by the Congress, Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah solidified Hindu votes in 2014 and 2019. The National Register of Citizens in Assam was updated mainly on instructions from the Supreme Court, but the BJP wants to replicate that process across the country to weed out ”termites”--Shah’s term for illegal immigrants. The public furore against the proposed nationwide NRC has led the government to step back, but it is being brought in through the back-door in the form of the National Population Register .
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, is another blow to India’s founding fathers who did not regard religion a criterion of citizenship. The CAA fast-tracks minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, save Muslims, to obtain Indian citizenship easily. This is with an eye to consolidate the Hindu vote bank in Assam, West Bengal and other states.
Patriotic fervour and anti-migrant sentiments are shared by Trump, though target is Mexicans. Separating parents from children and keeping illegal Mexicans in jails across the border is very much in line with the far-right’s anti-migrant stance anywhere in the world. Brexit is a result of Boris Johnson fanning fears of European Union migrants taking British jobs.
While Modi has not walked out of any of India’s commitments, he has appropriated to himself the best of the Congress’ policies. He has changed Narasimha Rao and the Congress party’s “look-East policy” to “act-East” and continues some welfare schemes initiated by the Congress. Though the slogan is less government, the tentacles of the Centre are everywhere.
Trump’s rants against Mexican immigrants, his no-filters speech about Latinos being rapists, murderers and thieves, his desire to build a border wall which the Mexican government would pay for, is part of his diatribe against immigrants. His Islamophobia was apparent when soon after coming to power he ordered a travel ban against seven Muslim countries, most of which had not been involved in any terror action against the US. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists had come from Saudi Arabia, a hot favourite of Trump. Modi, too, is anti-Muslim in domestic policy, but has worked at improving relations with the oil-rich Muslim rulers of Gulf states. Despite Kashmir, Modi was honoured last year with the "order of Zayed”, the highest civilian award given by the UAE.
Modi and Trump election rallies are much the same, though Modi garners more crowds. All, including journalists seen as critical to Modi, are heckled by these crowds. The same happens in Trump rallies, where candidates aim pot-shots at the ‘anti-Trump’ media. Trump has made the liberal press his number one enemy and never loses a chance to berate them. Modi has never held a press conference and besides, the Indian mainstream media is more pliant.
Both men can make nasty remarks unbecoming of their office. Modi recently said that the anti-CAA protesters could be identified by their clothes, by which he implied they are Muslim. He also follows many who spew hate on social media. “One bitch dies a dog’s death all the puppies cry in the same tune,” Nikhil Dadhich, a Hindu nationalist, tweeted after journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead. The PM was a follower. And here is a nasty personal tweet by Trump on his former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” Such below-the-belt remarks are a Trump trademark.
However there is also a major difference between Trump and Modi. Trump does most of what he does to cater to his base, how much of it is commitment is unknown. Modi does that too, but his hardcore Hindutva agenda, his desire to change India, is rooted in his RSS background. It reflects the times we live in that the old liberal narrative is crumbling the world over and nothing new has yet taken shape to replace it.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.