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Mainstream, VOL LV No 8 New Delhi February 11, 2017

Trump, Modi and a Shaft of Worrying Similarities

Sunday 12 February 2017, by Mani Shankar Aiyar


Francis Fukuyama, the celebrated Japanese-American intellectual, who saw the end of the Cold War as the “End of History” but a “Clash of Civilisations” as the next stage, has explained the accession of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States as “the rise of an American strongman (being) actually a response to the earlier paralysis of the political system”.

The thesis also applies perhaps to the rise of another outlier, Narendra Modi, to the top of the pole in India. While Fukuyama believes the checks and balances of the American Constitution have resulted in gridlock with nothing moving because elements in the legislature or judiciary (or both) opposed to any departure from the norm have always been able to thwart forward movement by the executive acting on its own, the paralysis in India—which Fukuyama has not studied—was on account of a collapse of the will to govern in the final years of the UPA-II. Whatever the underlying reason, the eventual outcome was that in both countries, strong men arose from nowhere who not only bucked the leadership of their own respective parties, but went on to win electoral victories that have left the establishment in both parties stunned into silence and acquiescence.

In consequence, the comparison does not end there. Something in their character drove them to seize the opportunity and because the forces of history were on their side, they coasted to their respective victories. As Herodotus, the Greek progenitor of all history, said, “Circum-stances rule men; men do not rule circumstances.” Yet, those whom circumstance selects—hero or villain—tend to share many traits of character. It is their character that determines the unfolding of their destiny. So who, as persons, are Trump and Modi?

Let us begin with Trump, as the American media in recent weeks has subjected him to microscopic scrutiny. Frank Bruni, the New York Times correspondent, has been perhaps the most scathing of all. Trump, he says, “is a legend in his own mind”. Modi is not far behind. Both are like “the cock crowing at its dawn”, not acknowledging that one is a PM with a minority vote of under a third of the electorate, and the other is a President with ten million more Americans having voted against him than for him (three million for Hillary and seven million for other candidates). Instead of recognising that it is not the unvarnished mandate of the people, but quirks in the electoral system—in India, “first-past-the-post” and in the US the Electoral College votes—that got them elected to high office, and, therefore, displaying a becoming humility, both are “braggarts”. If Trump “compliments himself out loud and lavishly on everything from the magnitude of his wealth to the majesty of his phallus”, Modi never lets go an opportunity to attribute his exceptional achievements to his exceptional virtues, spinning tales of his humble origins as a tea-vendor when the truth of the matter is that he is from a middle-class family that held the contract to run a canteen at the Inter-State Bus Terminal in Ahmedabad. Modi compliments himself out loudly and lavishly on the magnitude of his alleged poverty.

Both possess what Michael d’Antonio, a biographer of Trump, sees as “this combative quality”, driven by “his own emotional needs and his own insecurities” (best exemplified, in Modi’s case, by the 10 lakh suit he had tailored with his name written over every stripe, all in the hope of impressing a deeply embarrassed Barack Obama) and “uniquely insusceptible to advice and creative thinking” (as we have seen in India through the whole demonetisation drama).

The biographer describes Trump’s circus as “a vanity show”. Ours has been on display for the better part of three years: “Har Har Modi/Ghar Ghar Modi”, Modi as less PM than EM—an Events Manager, as this column dubbed him years ago. But it is perhaps in their desperate resort to Twitter that the two leaders most reveal themselves. The quote is from Gwenda Blair, another biographer of Trump, but applies word-for-word to our own Great Leader: “this is all about him completely dominating the news cycles—the use of Twitter to distract from any real questions, emphasis on loyalty, vituperation towards anyone he sees who is disloyal or doesn’t toe his line.” Ask Advani. Ask Murli Manohar Joshi. Ask Yashwant Sinha.

To revert to Fukuyama: “He (Trump? Modi?) wants to use his ‘movement’ to intimidate anyone who gets in the way of his policy agenda. And he hopes to intimidate the mainstream media by discrediting them and undermining their ability to hold him accountable.” So, where are the alarming similarities in the “policy agenda” of these two vain, insecure bullies?

First, identifying the “other”: in Trump’s case, the American of colour, both Black and Hispanic, neither of whom endorsed his bid for the presidency. In the case of the African-Americans, it has been estimated that only eight per cent of them voted for Trump, while the Hispanics, of whom the largest contingent is Mexican, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary. So Trump has nominated for Attorney General (the US equivalent of Minister of Law and Justice) Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama who is anathema to most American Blacks who look at Sessions’ legislative record and recorded statements and conclude that the Supreme Court was right in denying Sessions a federal judgeship in 1986 because his views smacked of “racism”. On finding that Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, the living icon of Martin Luther King’s movement, was leading the charge against Sessions, Trump tweeted that Lewis, the legendary civil rights activist, was “all talk and no action”, raising a howl of protest that is going to haunt Sessions through his tenure. Several of those whom Modi has brought to Parliament and appointed to his Council of Ministers are the Indian equivalent of Sessions in terms of their majoritarianism, the views they hold about our minorities, and the issues of community and community relations that animate and agitate them. Modi occasionally slaps them gently on the wrist, but usually just plays along.

On Mexicans, three separate issues converge: the Wall and who is going to pay up to $ 20 billion for it—Trump’s government or the Mexicans; deportation of “undocumented” immigrants, many of those threatened being from the 16 million strong Mexican community in the US; and the proposed tearing up of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and possibly imposing 20 per cent tariff across the board on imports from Mexico (whether this will pass muster at the World Trade Organisation is another matter) as Trump’s revenge for Mexican exports to the US having exceeded US exports to Mexico. All this, but above all, Trump’s insulting tweets about the Mexicans over the Wall, have led, within a week of Trump taking office, to an unholy diplomatic row that is shaking the US’ relationship with all of Latin America, and has resulted in the cancellation of the scheduled visit to Washington, DC of the Mexican President who was doing his best, in the face of strident domestic opposition that might yet bring about his overthrow, to keep relations with Mexico’s northern neighbour on an even keel, principally to conserve the boom in growth that Mexico has experienced in consequence of NAFTA.

The parallel with Modi’s Wall (barbed wire fencing) to keep out Bangladeshis sneaking into Assam is striking, the difference being that while Modi wants to keep out only Bangladeshi Muslims to promote his agenda of “othering” the Muslim community, Trump extends his “othering” to all Mexicans. This “othering” includes excluding all Latinos from his cabinet, however well-documented their residence and however unimpeachable their claim to US citizenship.

Trump is threatening NATO (being “nasty to NATO and nice to Putin”, as one former British ambassador to Washington has told The New York Times) even as Modi is unravelling SAARC. Modi says “Make in India”; Trump responds “Make in America”. Trump says “patriotism ends prejudice”; Modi claims cry out “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, and all will be well. Deportation to Trump is what sedition is to Modi. Trump seeks to dismantle Obamacare, but finds himself thwarted by the need to incorporate most of its provisions in any alternative scheme he might promote under another name, even as Modi thunders against all his predecessors’ social security schemes, then ends up merely changing their names. Both hate the independent media, Trump calling journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth” because they challenged his claim to having had the largest crowds ever at the presidential inauguration. Modi started out being sweet to the Pakistanis; one wonders how long Trump’s honeymoon with Putin will last. Modi rushes through environmental clearances; Trump clears the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline as among his first executive orders, held up by Obama in consideration of environmental and local community concerns. The parallelisms go on and on—but where will it all end?

In the US, the end was signalled almost with the beginning when 4.7 million disgruntled Americans, wearing knitted “pussy cat” hats in reference to Trump’s “locker room” talk, marched against Trump, holding placards that said “Love trumps Hate” and “You know in your guts/The guy is nuts” in the largest demonstration ever, protesting Trump’s agenda in cities all over the country (and abroad). In India, Modi’s end will be signalled when the results of the UP and Punjab elections start rolling in.


The author is a former Congress member of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

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