Don’t let your fears club together the two very different phenomena of Modi and Trump

Not peas in a pod.
Not peas in a pod.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam & Saul Loeb
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Leo Tolstoy in his second great classic Anna Karenina claimed, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s everyday wisdom works not only for families but also for political parties. Unhappy countries with caricatured leaders tend to be clumped together.

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are likened to peas in a pod. One must confess that many in the Indian elite would like to promote this idea that Modi anticipates Trump, but the linearity and the similarity sought melt in the realism of politics.

India and the USA are two different social contexts facing different challenges. Secondly, Trump and Modi are two different personalities whose origins and careers are radically different. Trump is a maverick billionaire, proud of his bar-room behavior, who parades his wife like a trophy. Modi smells of the shakhas, the local branches of the right-wing Hindu body, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and is an organisational creation. Modi hides his wife like skeleton in a closet. 

The conditions that created them are radically different, Trump’s campaign was almost elliptical to the Republican Party. He is, in fact, an accident of the electoral system with its winner-takes-all system. The majority voted for Hillary Clinton. The very nature of the electoral system made many Americans feel that the machine was weighted in an unfair way. Trump’s victory was a surprise, a fact many Americans are still getting used to. Modi’s campaign was an organisational juggernaut that created a new majoritarian politics. Modi’s opponents in the Congress were effete while Hilary Clinton fought a professional campaign. Maybe, it was a bit too professional.

True, both Trump and Modi threaten minorities. Modi of late plays the nation’s custodians arguing that the nation is prior, suggesting it is the minorities who have to adjust. Modi is controlled or almost subliminal in his threats, Trump is a loose cannon. Trump was elected by a people unhappy with the political system which was denying them a voice. Modi was elected by a majority that was tired of the Congress. One’s success was a politics of default, and another’s was almost fatalistic in its inevitability.

As president and prime minister, they are heads of two entirely different nations. One is a BRICS country, the other is a G-7 entity. America is a paradigm of success while India is an aspiring nation desperate for a seat in the UN Security Council. Trump creates foreign policy through a threat of bad behaviour. Modi is the Eliza Doolittle among politicians. He pretends that he has learnt to speak a new language of statesman-ly power politics. Trump emphasises that he is unique and hints he is inimitable. Modi pretends he has acquired the genes and style of a Nehru and Patel. As an aspirant to power, he often plays the mimic man imitating the styles of earlier leaders. Modi tries to woo America, Japan, and France. Trump displays an utter indifference to political etiquette.

The logic of their two politics, styles of behaviour, and tactical style is radically different. In fact, Trump rode on a politics of anxiety playing on economic uncertainties and Islamo-phobia. Modi rode on a generation’s tiredness with the inanities of the Congress. A politics of aspiration confronts a politics of anxiety.

Each uses machismo in a different way. America as a super power and the new imperium needs no assertion of machismo. Modi asserts machismo but it has a sense of control. He wants to project rationality and decisiveness. Modi seeks to be a metaphor pretending to be a mask and a hologram, imitating Mahatma Gandhi in a Khadi and Village Industries Commission calendar. Trump is a literal man who has to be taken literally.

The seeds of unhappiness they sow might be the same. But a similarity of fears must not hide the fact that Trump and Modi are two separate phenomena. Clubbing them together creates a caricature out of two caricatures. Our two democracies must learn to fight them differently if we wish to survive as democracies. Otherwise, we will remain unhappy families, hiding our differences with a superficial celebration of similarities.

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