There are gongs and then there are gongs. The one that the reluctantly outgoing United States President Donald Trump bestowed upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi weeks before he will likely have to be turfed out of his current 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue residence provoked some sniggers, but no real surprise. Trump awarded Modi the Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, on 21 December. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were also beneficiaries of Trump’s last-gasp benevolence. Reports say that this is the highest grade of three encompassed by this military honour.
Those geopolitically minded see a pattern in the award, given that the three fortunate awardees lead, or led, the three countries that form along with the United States the security grouping informally known as the “Quad” and somewhat more grandiloquently as the “Asian Nato”. Be that as it may, many world leaders would perhaps be less than excited to receive any kind of recognition from a man who has not just refused to accept that he was roundly trounced in the presidential elections held on 3 November, but also continues to peddle lies about a “stolen” election over seven weeks later, after the results have been certified.
Modi, needless to say, was delighted by this gesture from a kindred spirit, expressing how “deeply honoured” he felt and going on to waffle in his usual fashion about “bipartisan consensus in both countries about the Indo-US strategic partnership”.
If Trump’s refusal to concede was the only problem, it could have been written off as the kind of unsurprising truculence that the world has come to expect of Donald J. The outgoing president has, however, not contented himself with throwing a hissy fit, he has made it a matter of principle to pursue a scorched-earth policy that will leave President-elect Joe Biden a bigger mountain of crises than he would have confronted in any case.
Beginning with obstructing the transition by impeding or denying access to information for the Biden transition team, Trump has flipped a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose coin in a manner that Indians have not been strangers to since Modi’s ascension to prime ministerial office in 2014. On the one hand, Trump has signed off on death penalties at a pace not seen in over a hundred years. Consider these figures: after a hiatus of 17 years, Trump resumed federal executions. If three authorised but pending cases are carried out, he will have given the green light to 13 executions—the most in 130 years. Seven states carried out 22 executions in 2019 and five have carried out seven executions this year. The federal government has carried out ten.
On the flip side, Trump has been benevolence itself in handing out presidential pardons to convicted felons—almost all of them members of his inner circle. Many of the 92 people pardoned since coming to office had been convicted for offences committed to cover up for the President. Since losing the election, Trump has granted pardons to 42 people, 41 of them on 22-23 December.
Among them are his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, his first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, close ally George Papadopoulos, and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s father Charles Kushner. Also pardoned were four employees of Blackwater, the security contractor which used to operate in Iraq. They had massacred 17 unarmed Iraqi citizens, including several children, on 16 September 2007.
There are good reasons for Modi and Trump sharing a special, empathetic bond. As first citizens of the world’s biggest and oldest democracies respectively, they share an identical sense of entitlement. At the core of that sense is the unshakeable conviction that they, their parties, cronies and ideological soulmates are above the law. In Trump’s case, there is the addition of the family, infiltrated into the White House to add airheaded incompetence and pulchritudinous value. Luckily for us, stuck here in the boondocks, our Prime Minister seems not to have a family he acknowledges.
Parallel to Trump’s magnanimous pardons is Modi’s quiet assistance to ideological soulmates and party hacks. Thus, in the Bhima-Koregaon case, “urban Naxals” are having to take the rap because of the Prime Minister’s touching solicitude for Hindutva storm troopers who caused riots in 2018 by attacking a Dalit congregation, led by, among others, Sambhaji Bhide, his much-revered “guruji”.
Thus, too, during the Delhi Assembly election campaign a prime ministerial pass to a Union minister, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and a party candidate. What’s the big deal about the occasional incitement to murder between ministerial colleagues, after all? Par for the course was the immunity given to Hindutva rioters who went berserk in north-east Delhi killing Muslims, looting and destroying their properties and places of worship by the Delhi Police, which reports to Modi’s protégé, Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Hardliners in the majority community, too, have entitlements, after all. Not to speak of sentiments apt easily to be outraged.
Donald J. was in India when the Delhi riots broke out, despite attempts reportedly made to get them going after he had left the country. Does not look like anybody need have bothered. The US president is no stranger to setting his bully boys on largely peaceful protestors as in Portland, Oregon. He wouldn’t have minded.
Of the other traits that bind these two towering figures in a bear hug are megalomania bordering on psychopathology and a love for postmodernist theory. The latter induces in them an enduring embrace for “alternative facts” and post-truth narratives. To put it in balder terms, both are compulsive liars. Trump has been fact-checked. In the almost four years he has been in office, he has been clocked at lying more than 20,000 times or close to 20 times a day. Unfortunately, Modi has not been similarly called out, but his record is exemplary, if we go by statements on the issues of the Chinese incursions and farmers’ movement.
So, let us return to the special Modi-Trump empathy and the “bipartisan consensus in both countries…”. In September 2019, at the “Howdy Modi” event in Texas, the Indian prime minister famously ripped off his own 2014 election campaign tagline to tell the largely Indian-origin American crowd, “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar”. Unfortunately for Modi, Trump has lost. Now that Donald J. is on the verge of being dragged out of the White House kicking and screaming, he will revert to the status of private citizen without the extraordinary presidential prerogatives he still enjoys. Perhaps it is time for Modi to bestow favours on the former reality TV host and current unreality TV president.
For, this much is certain: Joe Biden is unlikely to become Modi’s BFF anytime soon. Still more remote is the likelihood of Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris becoming a Modi confidante given her explicit and scathing criticism of the Modi government over its Kashmir policy, and the implicit suggestions that she would put human rights at the centre of her approach to India.
Time for a reset for the Legionnaire of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, with the 56-inch chest?
The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.