Donald Trump’s election as the 45th US president illustrates the global ascendance of the political right.
Comparisons with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi whose rise predates Trump’s by two years, are inevitable. The two leaders share an evident admiration for each other. Both are hugely popular among their respective constituencies—Hindu nationalists for Modi and white supremacists for Trump—and highly resented by those who disagree with them. Both are polarising figures, who espouse deeply divisive agendas. Despite their many similarities, however, they are also remarkably different in important ways.
First, the commonalities. Modi and Trump are both powerful orators who connect well with their audiences. They speak with rhetorical flourishes, cleverly appropriating popular discontent with existing governments. Humour is key to their communication as they drive home their propaganda. Both show themselves to be strong leaders who can get things done. They deride the complex bureaucratic mechanisms that have come to characterise the polities of their respective countries.
Modi’s electoral campaigns were replete with references to the so-called Gujarat model, showcasing the prosperous western Indian state he ruled for over a decade as one where projects were implemented and decisions were taken. In the same vein, Trump has made much of his business acumen, highlighting his numerous financial successes and ability as a deal maker as evidence of his decisiveness. More tragically, both have run campaigns against religious and racial minorities, and against relief and welfare provisions for the poor.
Both are shrewd strategists. They exploited the first-past-the-post system to their advantage so that even as they won a minority of the popular vote—Modi and his allies won less than 40%, Trump, 46.7%—they also secured thumping majorities in the legislatures and steered their respective parties to comfortable victories.
Support for business interests is at the nub of the similarities between the two men. That Modi and top Indian business barons share a cosy relationship is no secret. His intimacy with two families, the Adanis and the Ambanis, is well-known. Trump is an executive for about 500 business entities and is clearly sympathetic to and embedded within business interests. But both leaders have carefully calibrated their support for big business by forging coalitions with the middle classes of their respective countries.
Modi and Trump have both made much of being from outside the corridors of power. They have reveled in being described as outsiders to the “establishment” in New Delhi and Washington DC, respectively. Yet, there is much irony in such claims. Modi was a well-established politician whose rise was championed by big businesses. Trump was a well-connected businessman with well-known proximity to the establishment, irrespective of whether it was ruled by Clinton or Bush. It is a testimony to their demagoguery and their ability to manipulate the media that they seem to have successfully pulled off their bluff.
Economic and social minorities remain suspicious of both leaders. Certainly, not all the people who voted for either politician were Hindu supremacists or white nationalists. But it is true that economic and social minorities remained unimpressed. Only 24% of India’s poor and 31% of the working class supported Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, contrasted to almost 38% of the “upper” classes. While 55% of India’s “upper castes” voted for Modi, only 25% of the Dalits (historically stigmatised as untouchables) and 7% of Muslims did.
Indications from the first CNN exit polls after the 2016 US election, suggest the majority of the privileged classes voted for Trump, while a majority of the poor voted against him. These initial exit polls also showed that 57% of white people rallied around Trump, while 89% of black people voted for his opponent Hillary Clinton. Trump and Modi are emerging as products of “elite revolts” against an establishment that was no longer the preserve of privileged social groups. They were not, as some liberal commentators have suggested, elected simply due to a revolt by the poor.
Despite their similarities, it is important not to overlook the differences between the two men, particularly in their personal backgrounds, political experience and attitudes towards globalisation.
The social differences between Modi and Trump could not be wider. Modi was born into a family of grocers in a rural area of western India and grew up helping his father sell tea at railway stations. Trump, by contrast, was born into privilege and inherited the Trump fortune, amassed over an entire century. The trajectories of the two men reveal much about the hugely different political narratives in the US and India.
Modi comes with far greater political experience than Trump does. Modi’s rise within the ranks of his BJP, while impressive, is by no means exceptional. Before being elected as India’s premier, he ruled Gujarat for two full terms. During this time, he consolidated his position within the party hierarchy. Modi is an insider within the BJP, having apprenticed under senior leaders of the party. By contrast, Trump is an outsider even to the Republican Party. This has also meant that while Modi carries huge political baggage, including serious allegations that he presided over the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat during the summer of 2002—which he denies—Trump is not the focus of such charges.
Modi’s public speeches suggest that he is favourably disposed towards globalisation, having invited world manufacturers to “make in India,” and promising to dismantle the regulatory hurdles that put off foreign investors. Trump, however, appears to be more inward-looking. Despite his own corporate investments, Trump has ranted against US jobs being “Bangalored”—moved to the Indian city of Bengaluru—potentially conflicting with his Indian counterpart’s economic dreams.
So, what can we expect over the next few years in the world’s two major democracies? For starters, we can expect social cleavages in the US to sharpen as provocations by white supremacists increase. Just as cow vigilante groups espousing an ideology of Hindu supremacy have been emboldened under Modi’s rule, we can expect displays of bigotry and hatred in the coming years, unless president Trump nips these in the bud.
We can also expect attitudes towards the poor to harden. Modi has mocked India’s extensive social protection system, claiming it promotes dependence. His recent decision to demonetise India’s economy has disproportionately hurt those with the least. We can expect the Trump administration to wage similar war on the poor. But above all, we can expect the muzzling of dissent that is the touchstone of a vibrant democracy. Modi’s government has targeted a number of people opposed to his government’s views, not sparing even students in the process. Trump will likely be only too eager to borrow an idea or two from Modi.