Essay

Of Donald Modi & Narendra Trump

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on June 27. Photo: PTI

The affinities between Trump and Modi are striking, but none of them bodes well for democracy.

NO two persons are exactly alike. But Narendra Modi and Donald Trump resemble each other to such a degree that one might as well call them Donald Modi and Narendra Trump. The affinities are striking in their range and depth; and they are disturbing in their potentiality for harm to the national good. This comes out in sharp relief as one lists their traits one by one.

1. A monumental ego is the most conspicuous quality which Narendrabhai shares with Donaldbhai. From it follow most others.

2. Demand of loyalty. Trump was clumsy enough to sack the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Director James Comey because he failed to extract from him a pledge of loyalty; itself a highly improper demand. Modi, unable to fire heads of statutory bodies, hand-picked loyalists in advance for sensitive posts. He planted his man Friday Amit Shah as party chief and set up a cabal of fawning Ministers. Never before was the country treated to a daily dose of Ministers praising their chief. Sushma Swaraj stooped so low as to proclaim that Jawaharlal Nehru merely promoted his own image while Modi raised the prestige of the nation. To think that this is the man who sits on the chair on which Jawaharlal Nehru once sat. Not to be outdone by Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh rushed to praise Modi’s Independence Day speech the very next day (“patterns emerging from his address, which reflect his concept of governance almost like mantras”); Ravi Shankar Prasad’s tributes to his master are as regular as they are sickeningly fulsome. As with Trump’s men, Modi’s stooges suffer from acute insecurity.

3. Both revel in demagogy, laced with fierce personal attacks on opponents and critics. They believe in Balfour’s dictum—speak often and speak for long; and you will acquire the contempt for his audience which every bore has.

4. Both are coarse and crassly vulgar, in their strict dictionary meaning. They do not care for censure. Modi set the tone with his speeches in Gujarat.

5. Both spread group hate with abandon.

6. Both are exclusivist ideologues owning a narrow world view and a narrow concept of nationalism. They regard themselves as the very personifications of their visions.

7. Insecure as they themselves are, Trump and Modi conduct their pantomimes with obedient advisers. Professionalism is scorned. Uneducated, except in the formal sense, the duo is also uneducable as well. They will not grow.

8. Egotism breeds ambition. Each, in his own style, seeks to recast the polity anew.

9. But neither cares to be specific about his programme. If reading brings pain to the lips, reflection gives a headache.

10. Flamboyance in style and escapist vagueness on substance. Slogans pass for policy statements: America First and Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas; Modi fears parliamentary debates and press conferences. He dislikes questions and abhors precision. So does Trump.

Such persons find institutions stifling. Trump attacks the United States Congress; Modi plants favourites as heads of cultural and educational bodies in order to bend them to his will.

11. To be sure, the two adore business and will go all out to make life easier for Big Business, for favourites in particular.

12. You know the club bore or the dinner party pest who tells any who gives him an ear, “I may not have studied economies; but my first principles are sound. I can fix the system.” Trump and Modi belong to this class.

13. These “experts” in economies are experts also in foreign policy. Modi and Trump believe in highly personalised diplomacy based on one assumption and one calculation. The assumption simply is that they know better and can manage men and matters. Within weeks of being sworn in as Prime Minister, Modi hosted President Xi Jinping, with results that are there for all to see. Trump went to Saudi Arabia to egg it on in its wild schemes—isolation of Iran and humiliation of Qatar. The calculation is a crafty one. Excursions abroad will impress sceptics at home.

14. Most remarkably, our arrogant partners in daring enterprises share a love and also a hate. They love Israel. They hate China. In 2013, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi denounced China as “expansionist”. Simplistic to the core, they believe that the world would join them in their attempts to isolate the chosen victim, be it Iran or Pakistan. But states follow the national interest; policies of isolation have a short shelf life.

15. Both are ruthless. Modi lost no time in putting veterans like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi in their place though they had run out of steam and posed no danger. Trump has shattered all records of presidential sackings of officials; Stephen K. Bannon, the “Chief Strategist”, being the latest.

16. A leader’s egotism, dangerous always, becomes a real menace when it is married to a narrow and exclusivist nationalism. Modi never conceals his brand. It is Hindutva “cultural nationalism”. He told the Press Trust of India (PTI) “I am a Hindu nationalist”, frankly and bluntly. Trump flaunts his brand of nationalism, which Charlottesville revealed. (Story on page 54.)

17. Since the hard core of the constituency is what it is, neither Trump nor Modi can afford to be anything but selective in their censures of wrongs, no matter how grave. Trump’s infamous remarks of August 15 on the outrage at Charlottesville will outlive his Presidency: “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.” The best comment came from Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May on August 16: “I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them. I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them.”

Modi practises his brand of moral equivalence as his speeches during the election campaigns to the Lok Sabha in 2014, in Bihar and in Uttar Pradesh, revealed. Not once has he censured attacks on Muslims specifically, nor has Trump attacked the Klu Klux Klan. Modi dare not censure the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

18. If the polity is to be recast, it is essential that history is rewritten and national heroes are replaced with votaries of the ideology of hate. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) takes pot-shots at Nehru. Trump plays the same game on George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as if there was nothing else to them besides ownership of slaves. Modi has sought to rewrite history systematically to exclude Nehru’s role in nation-building, very much as Stalin had history rewritten to wipe out Trotsky’s record. A nation is known by the men it lauds as its heroes. Modi and his BJP-RSS mentors prefer to laud S.P. Mookerjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and V.D. Savarkar.

The top leadership of the state has it in its power to promote its ideology and to create an atmosphere. In every democracy, the media has sympathisers of both, the ruling party and the opposition. Modi’s regime has created a new class of active supporters in the media on whom it lavishes its largesse. These are noted columnists who never deviate from the party line and have prospered in Modi Raj. TV is as faithful, bar exceptions. They mould a climate. On August 15, the National Public Service announced that the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., had been defaced by obscene writings drawn with spray paint. A Smithsonian Museum map on Constitution Avenue had received the same treatment.

19. Besides these dozen and odd affinities lies one which bodes ill for the political system. It is the leader’s belief that he stands apart and above the party. The party derives strength from him; not him from the party. Trump’s recent attacks on the Republicans will soon pass. The party system is strong though the divides are not as sharp and Trump cannot last long. His ratings are abysmally low.

The RSS is disturbed by Modi’s antics but shrewdly reckons that it has more to gain by him being Prime Minister than by ousting him. Modi’s ratings have suffered, but they remain encouraging enough for him. The opposition has not crafted an alternative and attractive programme, nor acquired an inspiring leadership. Modi developed an image of himself as one who will deliver and laced it with Hindutva. Any alternative must meet him on both.

It saddens one to note that two of the world’s great democracies are led by men intolerant of dissent; driven by a tunnel vision; and made of poor quality fibre, coarse and outmoded.

“Ye gods, it doth amaze me,/A man of such a feeble temper should/So get the start of the majestic world,/ And bear the palm alone.”

Shakespeare had a conspirator say this of Julius Caesar. What a scornful portrait he would have drawn of sawdust Caesars Trump and Modi.

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