Donald Trump & Narendra Modi are kindred symbols of the democratic erosion that has become the hallmark of our times. At a time when the former seeks re-election, several disturbing commonalities can be spotted in the politics of the two leaders.
Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader, winner of Nobel Peace Prize
The “Namaste Trump” event was held in the last week of February at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad. With more than 100,000 people in attendance, the event was a glittering, spectacular affair. Indian T.V. channels and media outlets went berserk, gushing over the visible bonhomie between U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they went on to share nearly half a dozen bear hugs over the course of the day.
This grand exhibition of their friendship was no mere coincidence though. The two leaders share a number of traits, including their authoritarian appeal and demagoguery. As Trump prepares for his upcoming re-election in November 2020, the similarities between his actions and those of Narendra Modi in the run-up to his own re-election in May 2019 – which he won with a thumping majority – are too many to ignore. Be it their aversion to dissent, hawkish approach towards an “enemy” foreign country, or hardline immigration stance, the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies are kindred symbols of the democratic erosion that is unfortunately becoming the hallmark of our times.
Aversion to Dissent
The Modi Government in general, and P.M. Modi in particular make no secret of their fundamental antipathy to dissent, whether it emanates from the media or otherwise. For instance, Modi called journalists, activists, and elitist politicians the “Khan Market Gang”, a snide reference to a plush market frequented by Lutyens’ Delhi’s old-moneyed English-speaking clique who always regarded Modi as a boorish upstart. The months before the 2019 General Elections saw online smear campaigns being mounted against several outspoken journalists including Ravish Kumar and Rana Ayyub. Also noticed was a disconcerting pattern of bullying influential media outlets that did not toe the government’s line, prompting several editors-in-chief to quit their jobs. The annual “Reporters Without Borders” analysis released in April 2019 flagged the period leading up to the General Elections as particularly dangerous for Indian journalists. It mentioned violent attacks on them by supporters of the ruling party, and the killing of at least six journalists in 2018. Journalists critical of the ruling establishment also increasingly found themselves charged with sedition and libel.
Watch: Is India becoming dangerous for journalists?
In the U.S, President Trump has consistently shown himself as a leader with little to no tolerance of criticism. But lately the burgeoning economic and social crises, due to COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests, have forced Trump to confront searching questions. And he has responded only as he is expected to: with bitter insults and recriminations. Apart from acerbic exchanges with reporters at Coronavirus briefings, President Trump has – over the past few months – turned his ire on leading media organizations, constantly villainizing them, and dismissing all critical reporting as fake news. Recently, he signed an executive order restricting legal protections enjoyed by social media companies after ripping into Twitter for putting fact-checking labels on his tweets.
Watch: Trump insults reporters during coronavirus press briefing
The weeks following the February 2019 Pulwama terror attack – which resulted in the killing of 40 Indian soldiers – saw an escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan. Modi eagerly launched into forceful rhetoric, warning Pakistan that his country would give a “strong response” to the attack. Less than a fortnight later, India conducted the Balakot airstrike in which Indian fighter jets dropped bombs on what they believed was a terrorist training camp near the town of Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Though satellite imagery and international media teams pointed that there were no casualties and no damage except a few splintered trees and rocks, Modi went on to effectively make the neighbouring country the centrepiece of his poll campaign. According to an analysis by The Print, in the 24 public addresses Modi delivered between the Pulwama attack and first week of April, he mentioned ‘India’ 220 times in the context of Balakot air strikes, ‘terrorism’ 70 times, ‘Pakistan’ 47 times, and ‘security forces’ 35 times. The erstwhile emphasis on “development for all” that had catapulted him into prime ministership in 2014 was all but forgotten.
Watch: ‘We will give befitting reply to Pakistan’: PM Modi
Likewise, President Trump started his New Year on a sabre-rattling note, ordering the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on January 3. Tensions quickly mounted between the two countries, as Iran swore “severe revenge” and responded by attacking a US military base in Iraq, injuring dozens of American soldiers. Though Trump sought to defuse the situation by downplaying the impact of the Iranian attack, he imposed new economic sanctions on Iran, plunging its economy into further recession. But after Coronavirus exploded in the United States, Trump found a new “enemy” country to lambast: China. He has repeatedly made shrill accusations of China orchestrating the pandemic, even claiming to have evidence that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan. Lately, his administration banned flights from China, and issued rules that make it harder to export certain types of advanced technology to China. In another pressure tactic disguised as concern for human rights, Trump plans on signing a bill calling for sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the crackdown on Uighur Muslims. Clearly, Trump is convinced of the merits of being on the warpath before the election.
Watch: Trump steps up attack of China
Nation & Nationalism
Abiding by the authoritarians’ playbook, Modi embarked on a poll campaign that whipped up bitter hostility towards an internal enemy. The poll template centered on an internal aggressor was perfected by the Congress Party in the 1984 General Elections. The result: a landslide victory for the INC, in which it won 404 of 514 seats in the Lower House. The target of collective malice though, wasn’t the Sikhs – like in 1984 – but the Muslim community. Narendra Modi’s stoic silence over a spate of incidents in which Muslims were lynched by marauding gangs of cow vigilantes, and his sneering remark about the Congress Party contesting from areas where the “majority is a minority” must be understood as a dog whistle to his Hindutva base. His campaign too was chest-thumpingly divisive, based on promises of ousting undocumented Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants and abolishing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted semi-autonomous status to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu & Kashmir. While the promises were duly fulfilled in 2019, the campaign itself must be seen as a prelude to the exclusionary brand of nationalism, the country – under the ruling party – must brace itself for.
Watch: Why India’s 2019 general election stoked conflict
If “Make America Great Again” – Donald Trump’s 2016 election slogan – was a racist dog-whistle for white southerners, “Keep America Great” was no different, albeit masquerading as a reference to the formerly strong economy. While speaking at the UN General Assembly in 2019, Trump enunciated his narrow worldview as he stressed the importance of strong borders, of governments defending their “history, culture and heritage”, and the value of nationalism and sovereignty. His most recent actions can be understood in the light of these words. His administration has accelerated efforts to build the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. by surveying private land needed for the project even as landowners remained indoors due to COVID-19. In April, he signed an executive order temporarily suspending issuance of green cards to certain categories of immigrants. In many ways, even Trump’s unsurprisingly bellicose response to the ongoing protests is but a component of his larger agenda of perpetuating ethno-nationalism defined by white hegemony. His rhetoric of violence against protestors – whom he called domestic terrorists – suggests that non-white “outsiders” and their allies are a threat to “law and order” whose sanctity Trump claims to be an upholder of. It seems that nothing, except loss in the November elections, can hold Trump back.
The Post-Truth Era
The rise of demagogues such as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi signals that we are living in a post-truth era. Instead of rejection, their xenophobic calls for violence, ruthless othering of immigrants and minorities, and promises of ushering in a prosperous future modelled on a fictitious golden past have earned them immense popularity.
While it is difficult to say if Donald Trump will be re-elected as President – recent polls have shown dipping approval ratings – what worked for Narendra Modi, may well work for his American counterpart. That would inaugurate a new bleak chapter, marked by unceasing strife and iniquity, in the history of the world.