India and the US have much in common: diversity, an anti-imperial legacy, deep social segregation, and an avowed commitment to people’s rule.
The past few months have seen chillingly similar political winds sweeping through the two nations as well. While authoritarianism and parochialism are rising globally, these ominous trends stand out particularly in the world’s largest democracies.
India elected Hindutva icon Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, and since then a series of unsavoury incidents fuelled by xenophobia have rattled the country.
Meanwhile, the US will pick a new occupant to the White House this November. Odds are that billionaire Donald Trump will be the Republican contender for presidency—a scary prospect not just for the US’ friends and foes, but also his own party. Trump’s campaign has so far been a noxious mix of racist rhetoric, demagoguery and tribalism.
In both nations, the stigma attached to openly professing hatred for the “other” seems to be disappearing. Xenophobia is being embraced by at least a segment of the population that has taken its cue from Trump and Modi.
And this may be leading to real violence in both nations.
In the US, protesters have been shoved around, punched in the face and beaten up at various events—a phenomenon that has been absent from American politics for at least a generation. Referring to the bloodlust unleashed by Trump’s instigation, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow said, “We have seen this at the fringe… But this is now mainstream, frontrunner Republican national politics.”
Writing in the New York Times, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said, “Let’s dispel with this fiction that the Trump phenomenon represents some kind of unpredictable intrusion into the normal course of Republican politics. On the contrary, the G.O.P. has spent decades encouraging and exploiting the very rage that is now carrying Mr. Trump to the nomination… Donald Trump is not an accident. His party had it coming.”
According to Warner Todd Huston, the Chicago-based writer and political observer, voters in America are in a rage. Though for various other reasons, this is something akin to what Indians felt for the Congress party in 2014.
The Republican rank and file has been “edging into exasperation” with its party elite for about a decade, Huston said in an email to Quartz. They see the main party establishment as only mouthing the words of the Republican credo while voting in favour of the Democrat agenda.
This is why Trump strikes a chord. “He is portraying himself as an outsider who intends to wipe away the Republican power-mongers who have driven the party to the ground,” Huston said.
The fury may also be due to the unprecedented two-term presidency of an African-American, as Krugman suggests in his New York Times column. Hence, Trump is often seen and heard venting that anger against ethnic minorities.
So, is there a real risk of the discourse turning more viciously rabid in the US?
“Perhaps. Time will tell. Then again, politics has always been a blood sport in the US, so what we are seeing may only be the most obvious iteration of its public face,” Huston said.
All sections of Indian politics—Left, Right and Centre—have covertly, overtly, and often violently, suppressed voices in the past.
But the campaign for the 2014 India elections was particularly bruising and divisive, coming after a 10-year rule by a Congress-led coalition government riddled with scams.
Modi, who eventually trounced others, led the bluster brigade all through. His crafty packaging of right-wing Hindutva in developmental hyperbole during the campaign was dubbed dog-whistle communalism.
Along with Amit Shah, his long-time confidant and current chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi muddied the discourse with his constant use of terms such as “pink revolution” and “sub-quota”—the first was a jibe at India’s soaring meat exports; the second refers to the issue of community-based government job reservations.
These terms were clearly intended to ratchet up hatred for India’s biggest religious minority, Muslims, who have traditionally been wary of the BJP’s Hindu extremist agenda.
At the same time, Modi created a subtle false binary of “national” and “anti-national”, where the Congress party was projected as conspiring to disintegrate India.
His “nationalistic” bluster was buttressed often by chants of “Vande Mataram” (bow to the motherland) during his rallies across the country. One of the BJP candidates—now a junior minister in the government—even said that those opposed to Modi must go away to Pakistan, a not-so-subtle hint at Muslims.
Modi deftly fed the Hindutva dogs of war even as he was seen gently caressing the developmental dove.
The Hindutva strongman was merely applying the skill he had honed over the years as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat.
And this ultimately did win Modi the electoral battle—Indians searching for meaning and strong leadership voted for him with a vengeance.
While acknowledging a parallel, wherein hitherto subterranean chauvinistic aggression is now getting mainstreamed and brazenly frank in both countries, sociologist Dipankar Gupta told Quartz, “Let us be careful, though. In the US, Trump is seen openly egging on lumpen elements. In India, the BJP’s top level is actively trying to dissociate itself from them.”
Gupta, a professor at Greater Noida-based Shiv Nadar University, said, “It may be a good cop-bad cop ploy, but it is there. An optical illusion has been created of the top leadership being free of guilt.”
It is true that Modi and other top leaders of the Indian government or the ruling BJP haven’t been seen indulging in Trump-ist instigation during the string of violent incidents—be it “beef lynchings” or the “nationalism” debate—that have rocked India since Modi took power.
However, that could be deceptive. Calculated silence at the top during social crises is often a tacit approval of the lower rungs’ intrigue and provocation. And this has been rampant in the recent past, with even ministers and senior BJP members openly indulging in rabble-rousing or insensitive commentary during tinderbox situations.
In short, from fanning the flames from under his breath during campaigning, prime minister Modi shifted gears to maintaining strategic silences, playing wink and nudge. So, unlike Trump, whose depraved exhortations have a direct causal relationship with real physical violence in the US, there’s been a time lag between Modi’s rise and its repercussions.
Elaborating on the first two turbulent years of Modi’s in office, Andre Beteille, professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, said that the brute majoritarianism on display during this period is a function of the political forces that have fueled the prime minister’s rise.
According to Beteille, former prime minister Manmohan Singh was perceived as weak and being dominated by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party. That created a yearning among voters for a strong prime minister—and Modi stepped in.
“Prejudice against minorities and lower castes has existed for a long time in India. However, this government is quite open about its majoritarianism. This is only partly a function of Hindutva. Fundamentally, it is also a reflection of the strongman image of the prime minister,” Beteille told Quartz.
“The current turmoil in India over nationalism and religion, thus, certainly has a direct correlation with the election campaign of Modi,” Beteille said.
When punctuated by chants of “USA! USA!” or “Vande Mataram”, the worst forms of bigotry gets camouflaged under nationalist jingoism.
America and India now have top mainstream politicians who have mastered that lesson—adding a whole new spectre of political malevolence to the world.
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