Over a year ago, I wrote about how Trump reminds me of a politician I know from my youth, Bal Thackeray:
Bal Thackeray adopted a hodge-podge of ideological positions. His party controlled trade unions while he openly admired strongmen and dictators (including Hitler). The one constant throughout his career was the use of ethnic and religious divisions. His real talent was tapping into economic discontent, frustration and anger at corruption. He rose to prominence by fomenting resentment towards “immigrants” from other states in India. Bombay had been a melting pot for decades, attracting people from all over India who spoke a multitude of languages. Thackeray drove a wedge between Marathi-speakers (from the area around Bombay) and all others, convincing them South Indians, Gujaratis and Hindi-speakers were taking their jobs. Years later, when it became less easy to rouse people using linguistic differences, he moved on to exploit religion.
Thackeray’s party, the Shiv Sena, is allied with India’s ruling right-wing Hindu-nationalist BJP. Thackeray too had a knack for using media to rile up the worst instincts in his followers. He started his career as a political cartoonist. His entire political career was built on bombast and stoking religious, ethnic and linguistic differences. Like Trump, he made his home in the most integrated city in the country. And yes, Thackeray, like Trump, admired Hitler’s rhetoric and tactics.
Modi is far more coy about how he stokes sectarian fires, and projects the perception of competence. He is not above bombastic rhetoric when necessary, but it is not his natural mode. In his personal life, he cultivates a reputation for ascetic probity. Perhaps the right analogue for Modi is actually Mike Pence. That should make you pause and reconsider how much you want Trump removed from office.
Though their styles may differ, Modi and Trump do respond very similarly to violent attacks on minorities. Trump’s behavior after the Charlottesville attacks is very similar to what Prime Minister Modi’s half-hearted statements when vigilantes have lynched Muslim men suspected of eating beef (it’s happened multiple times). They wait for days, and then half-heartedly condemn the violence, often excusing it as being “provoked”. In Modi’s case, the provocation is beef-eating. In Trump’s it’s protesting racism.
Mihir Sharma, writing in Bloomberg today, advises that it’s a waste of time trying to get Trump to “say the right thing”. Most Indians have realized Modi’s winking statements reluctantly condemning Hidutva vigilantes are meaningless and satisfy no one.:
Even before he confirmed that he didn’t actually mean what he’d said, nobody could have believed that Trump genuinely meant what he’d said. Nor could anyone have believed that his stilted statement on Monday deterred or dismayed the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville this weekend. […]
We in India have played out our version of this dark farce for three years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi climbed to power with a record blemished by years of pandering to Hindu nationalists. Emboldened by his victory, the hardest core of his supporters asserted themselves across India through intimidation and violence. Muslims were lynched; people born into lower castes were publicly beaten. The prime minister was pressed: Why would he not address this violence?
For days after one particularly horrific lynching, Modi declined to respond. And then, when he did, nobody was really satisfied. Like Trump’s real reaction, there was a strong element of “both-sides-ism” in his response. — www.bloomberg.com/…
Forcing Trump to “say the right words” when he clearly doesn’t believe them, is largely a waste of our time. He wears his allegiance to white supremacy on his sleeve, and that isn’t going to change. Modi ascribes to an ideology of Hindu supremacy, and nothing’s going to change him either. Neither of them is above claiming that they only seek to preserve a unique, especially wonderful “culture”.
There are many other similarities between them and their countries. They both instinctively understand democracy as “majority rule”, and by majority they mean the majority religion/race. They have limited patience for minority rights, I suspect they both ascribe to the view that minorities should “know their place”. Hindus are roughly 80% of the Indian population. That’s a soft number though, since there are very strong caste and linguistic divisions. Modi and the BJP in general, are viewed as an upper-caste, north-Indian party. Roughly 80% of the US considers itself Christian, and 80% is white/hispanic. Though again, there are numerous divisions and clearly Trump sees himself representing the non-hispanic white protestant population, which is the largest group.
Neither of them are particularly concerned with lower-caste, poorer population. When pressed, they’re likely to claim whatever benefits the majority or wealthy will eventually benefit the minority or poorer population as well.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. They are both firmly anti-Muslim. This is a bigger issue in India since Muslims are a larger part of the population. But in the US anti-Muslim rhetoric generally goes hand in hand with anti-black sentiment since for a lot of people Islam is associated with black people.
We can discuss what drives the forces that brought Modi and Trump to power, and they would certainly include technological disruption, globalization, climate change stress, and much more besides.
But the question I want to ask is whether our countries can descend into widespread sectarian violence. I don’t have an answer, it’s really more of a question. Both countries have a long history of violent pogroms (as frankly do almost all places).
The historian Ramchandra Guha was interviewed by Slate recently, and he was asked what he thought of Modi vs Trump:
In what ways do you think personally is Modi similar or different from the other demagogues we see around the world?
Trump is a maverick, an egomaniac really interested only in himself, whereas Modi is interested, of course in himself, he is an enormously vain man too, but he is interested in consolidating his party [BJP] and his philosophy’s control over India. He would like to leave a positive legacy behind. It’s unlikely that he will, but he likes to think of himself as a man of history. And he’s building upon this very well-entrenched, very motivated, and very dangerous RSS organization, which Trump certainly doesn’t have and [French leader of the National Front] Le Pen certainly doesn’t have and [Hungary’s] Viktor Orbán doesn’t have. In that sense, Modi has the capacity to do a great deal more damage because of the organizational depth of the RSS and the BJP. — www.slate.com/…
Guha’s right, Trump doesn’t have the brown-shirt like organization, Modi does. But, Guha also doesn’t appreciate the fact that the US population is far, far more heavily armed than the Indian population. The typical Indian riot involves machetes, knives and sticks. Virtually no one has firearms. The white nationalist militia people in Charlottesville were very heavily armed. The governor admitted this intimidated the police.