The United States presidential election holds out lessons for India, none more significant than the undeniable evidence that leaders who fan primordial fears do gain substantial electoral advantages. That the societal rift their politics causes is not easily repairable. That whether the fears they inflame are grounded in reality is irrelevant. That a people turned deliberately insecure are not often amenable to reason.
For four long years, Donald Trump taunted and provoked on a daily basis, stoked the embers of racism, egged on white supremacists, sought to subvert public institutions, and revelled in generating fake news. For those four years, public officials took position against him, the media railed against him, Twitterati joked about him, and a string of stories exposed his lies. It was presumed he would not get a second term in office.
Indeed, he failed—but just about. As his rival Joe Biden huffed and puffed to victory, eventually bagging an impressive tally in the Electoral College, there can be no denying that Trump was within sniffing distance of power. His support base expanded and, as the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool shows, he even split equally with Biden the constituency of white college graduates among voters. It does seem even the educated among the whites did not think Trump was a threat to democracy. Even the Black Lives Matter movement did not touch them.
Therein is a lesson for Indians to learn.
Race is among the principal faultlines in America. Race has the capacity to subsume other faultlines, such as class and the rural-urban divide. In India, religion has the same function as the politics of race in the United States. True, the political systems of India and that of the United States are remarkably different, but the Biden-Trump electoral contest has displayed democracy’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity to harness primordial identities for electoral mobilisation.
Religion is to the Bharatiya Janata Party what race has been to Trump’s Republican Party. For nearly a century, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which the BJP is an affiliate, has propagated the idea of Hindutva, which defines the Indian as one whose fatherland and holy land is India. This excludes religious groups such as the Muslims and Christians, whom the second RSS chief Guru Golwalkar identified as two of India’s three “internal enemies”, the third being the Communists.
The RSS-BJP formation, over the last six years, has “othered” the Muslims, palpable from its programmes such as the anti-cow slaughter movement, love jihad, ghar wapsi and, more recently, through the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The RSS-BJP has also not spared the Left-liberals, even those Hindu, who have all been dubbed as “urban Naxals.” They have been accused of waging war against the Indian state and incarcerated for fomenting violence, as for instance in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case.
The BJP has deployed Hindutva to subsume other identities such as caste, class and language. The RSS was formed by Maharashtrian Brahmins out of their insecurities stemming from modernisation and their own marginalisation. It represented the interests of upper castes nervous at the pressure subaltern caste groups were mounting to flatten the hierarchical Hindu social order. At the core of their anxiety was the fear of being swamped by categories of castes far larger than them. Hindutva was fashioned as an instrument to blunt the radicalism of caste-class, a project which has met with remarkable successes ever since the Mandal-Mandir politics began to cleave Indian society.
Demography also defines the anxieties of whites in America. They constituted roughly 90% of the American population in the 1950s. They are down to 60% now. It has had the whites fear that they would soon become a minority in what they think, rather wrongly, is “their” country. That their distinctive “way of life” would fade away. This latent sentiment was exploited by Trump. He overlaid the Republican Party’s conservatism with racism. Conservatism can unite segments of different racial groups over issues like family, marriage, church and religion. Racism can only repel them because it will become a tool of discrimination against them.
Trump has combined white nationalism with the fear of socialism and the promise of delivering on the economic front. He repeatedly, and falsely, projected Biden as a socialist whose presidency would see America shift to the Left. This worked handsomely for him in Florida, where Latinos of Cuban descent voted for him. Likewise, the Edison Research exit poll showed that 35% of those who voted in the presidential election considered economy as a more important issue than racial inequality and the Covid-19 pandemic. Out of them, 82% voted for Trump.
Trump, like Modi, has been projected as a “strong leader”, a quality 32% of voters thought was far more important in the President than other competing attributes—whether he can unite the country, cares about people, and has good judgement. Seventy-one percent of those who pined for a strong leader voted for Trump. These details from the Edison Research Survey show racism thrives on the multiple, reinforcing desires for economic progress, a strong leader and anti-Left sentiments.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has combined Hindutva and its traditional antipathy towards the Left with the idea of development and the seemingly popular desire for a strong leader. Just as democrats wondered how to vanquish Trump, the anti-BJP forces have been mulling strategies to stump Modi. The Democratic Party’s victory, after a tough fight in several battleground states, has had commentators applaud its leadership for pitting a centrist like Biden against Trump. They say a Democrat with a pronounced Leftist leaning would have been walloped in the 2020 presidential race.
In India, almost all national and regional parties, barring those Communist, have already adopted what is described as a “Hindutva lite” strategy. They largely refrain from speaking against government policies designed against Muslims, believing it only enables the BJP to aggravate the anxieties of Hindus and polarise the electorate. They have been projecting themselves as parties with Hindu ethos. They think it is vital to neutralise the growing pull of Hindtuva. And they strive to focus on the deteriorating economic situation, to compel the BJP to bat on a wicket not to its liking. The viability of the Opposition’s strategy will be soon tested in Bihar, where the BJP’s campaign on the issues of Hindutva and hyper-nationalism went largely unchallenged.
It is easier for the Hindutva lite strategy to work in the states than at the national level. This is largely because Modi is not a contestant in the Assembly elections. He is to the BJP what Trump has been to the Republican Party. It is tempting to think Opposition is right in borrowing, consciously or otherwise, from the Democratic Party’s play-book—of not driving away white voters into the Republican Party’s camp through radical socio-economic policies.
But then, India is far more diverse than the United States. India does not have robust public institutions and a media daring to challenge Modi and the BJP. Indeed, in the United States, the media and public officials played a critical role in exposing Trump’s chicanery, of ensuring that the culture of dissent did not wither away. That role has to be played by India’s Opposition, which will likely find that presenting an agenda more radical than Hindutva lite to the nation is its compulsion, not an option.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.