The comparison isn’t apples to apples, but their parallel lives have startling similarities.
In his new book We Were Eight Years In Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates has an essay on Donald Trump where he calls Trump the “first white president”. Per Coates, while the other 43 white presidents did use their white privilege to at least assume the veneer of statesmen, generals or scholars, Trump only used and amplified his being white as the only means to become what he has.
To paraphrase Coates, Obama highlighted to Black people that if they worked doubly harder than a white man, they too could be something like a president. Trump, however, proved that if a white man worked only half as much as a Black man, he could still have the same — if not more.
Coates’s essay, also published in the Atlantic, is a must read, but it made me wonder what the Trump years taught me about my homeland, India. And while the comparison is not apples to apples, certain interesting things jump out about the parallel lives of Trump and Modi.
For example, the first time Modi was seen in public light was in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — a movement now seen as the first assertion of a Hindu India to her Muslim citizens that the relationship between the two communities will now be of unequals. This was the same period where in the US, Trump made front-page headlines when he called for the hanging of the Central Park Five: five teenage boys convicted of raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park without any proof of their involvement. The boys would spend many years in prison before being released and found to be innocent.
This was by no means the first time Trump or his family displayed their racial proclivities. There have been murmurings of his father being in the Ku Klux Klan. Cases have been filed against both him and his father for not allowing Black people to live in their residential buildings.
For his part, Narendra Modi had always been with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and still admires Guruji Gowalkar, the late Hindu supremacist leader of the RSS, as his one idol. The Janmabhoomi movement was the nascent beginning of Modi’s rise, just like how Trump in the Nineties was seen as a popular, albeit somewhat eccentric, but certainly not racist realtor in New York.
Now, while India has always had prime ministers of Hindu faith, except Manmohan Singh, Modi is the first backward caste prime minister. (Ghanchi, his caste, was put in the OBC bracket only in 1994; it was counted as general before.) His views on caste are, for the lack of a better term, Brahminically inspired. As I have written before, in his only published work Karmayogi, Modi makes it clear that he believes that even manual scavenging castes find enlightenment in their jobs. His idolatry of Golwalkar and DD Upadhyaya is also testament to that.
Judging the book beyond its cover
In 2016, Trump, as the Republican Party candidate, secured a shocking victory over Hillary Clinton. Many ascribed his win to his being a successful businessman who knew how to get the best deals (his ghostwritten book is actually called The Art of the Deal). He was presented as this winner who’d get things done, especially as someone different from the usual Washington, DC, elites like Clinton.
Never mind that Trump’s rise in business — if one can even call it that — was founded on his father’s money which, by all accounts, he lost, and that he was as much an American elite as the Clintons, who were guests at all of his weddings. And to add to that, without a hint of irony, Trump was going to replace a Black guy from the south side of largely Black Chicago. Yet, Trump was the “anti-elite”, his image a carefully constructed PR exercise for his reality show, The Apprentice.
Right before the 2020 election, the New York Times reported that he, as a businessman, had incurred millions of dollars in losses and paid on $750 in taxes. Not the most successful businessman by any account.
Not too dissimilar was the rise of Modi who, to his credit, emerged from much humbler backgrounds but was made the Gujarat chief minister by the Delhi high command to avoid state-level in-fighting. When he was appointed chief minister, Gujarat was already one of India’s most prosperous states. Nevertheless, he was touted for his development model which, like Trump’s, was a carefully constructed PR exercise.
There was no demonstrable proof that Modi changed Gujarat any more than any other average chief minister did in their own states. In fact, when Modi left to become prime minister, Gujarat’s infant mortality rate was 33 per 1,000, worse than Jharkhand. Similarly, when it came to crimes against scheduled castes, the rate of total cognisable crimes in Gujarat (25.7 percent) was far higher than Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Jharkhand. More than 39 percent of children in Gujarat were underweight as opposed to the national average of 36 percent. And while all this cannot be attributed to Modi’s policy failures, he was not the magic man he was touted to be through mass media campaigns.
The developmental messiah that Modi was led India to demonetisation, botched GST implementation, a Covid lockdown that was as arbitrary as Modi’s call to cancel currency notes, and now a GDP growth that’s seeing the worst slump in decades. According to the International Monetary Fund’s projections, India will be overtaken in GDP per capita by Bangladesh — a country seen by the BJP in the same manner in which Trump sees Mexico.
Meanwhile, after becoming president, Trump took some decisions that were quite opposite to this suave businessman image, be it leaving the Paris Accord, the Iran nuclear deal, his recent Covid response, or, most importantly, how he seemed to kowtow to authoritarians and dictators and was played by them like a fiddle.
Both Indian Hindu supremacists and the American MAGA crowd have nothing to show for all this except the fact that in both countries, their respective minorities have had it much worse than them.
A study in character
While Trump started his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”, he was later shown himself to be a sexual predator through an Access Hollywood tape and personal accounts from victims. The tapes came out about a week before the 2016 election and were seen as something that the American public would never accept. Everyone thought this would sink his ship.
This was pretty much how many Indians, especially in the media, felt about Modi and the Gujarat genocide. (To Trump’s credit, there is no proof to show that he has ever been involved in killing someone, let alone a pogrom.) India Today famously had Modi on their cover in 2004, calling him the “hero of hatred”. He was barred from getting a US visa up until he became the presumptive prime minister nominee.
While neither Trump nor Modi have been proved guilty in a court of law for their actions, there is very little doubt that a large section of their supporters stand by them not despite their actions but because of them. Both leaders faced massively protests and backlash for the Muslim fly ban and the CAA-NRC, respectively. And while reams of paper has been used to write about Trump’s racism and Modi’s anti-Muslim tendencies, I’d like to remind people of the words of Andrew Gillum, the Florida gubernatorial candidate of 2018: “I am not calling [you] a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he is a racist.”
While Trump — very much part of the New York social circles and an elite by any objective measure — was touted as this great leader of the have-nots in Washington, Modi was proclaimed as the leader of the rest of India against the Lutyens’ elite, or the Khan Market gang. What’s overlooked is that in both India and the US, the lowest rung of people by any HDI indicators — the Muslims and the Blacks, respectively — are comprehensively against both of them. Who, then, are they representing?
The answer is obvious: They represent the anger and resentment that has been flamed by their parties against the same minorities over decades. They represent the hate that a certain section of society sustains against its own weakest.
There is a reason that Hindu groups in India have to fight imaginary battles against Babar, Khilji and Aurangzeb, because if they were to actually point to the living people who they hate with all their heart, they would have to face the beastly cult that they have become. A cult that is lynching people in mobs for their dietary preferences or sometimes just for not chanting “Jai Shri Ram”. It is the same in the US, where Trump and his supporters railed against the coastal elites because the actual point of their ire were the thousands of under-privileged, low income George Floyds who are killed just for moving in a way that seems threatening.
The media and intellectuals still try to theorise why a Trump or a Modi are elected, be it draining the swamp or enabling reforms. But the truth is that beyond the buzzwords, there is nothing to show. Even a cursory glance at India or the US would tell you that they are not objectively better than they were half a decade ago. The US just lost 240,000 people to Covid; India is facing deep economic repercussions of thoughtless policy measures. And although it does not look right to paint a large part of these big countries as racist or xenophobic, the statistical reality, and an honest assessment, does not agree with any other conclusion.
The cult and the cultists
The more I looked at Trump, the more I saw how two countries so far apart and two people so very different were still so similar in what they represented to the people who wanted them.
As Trump once said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue [in New York City] and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” To the people who support him, this could very well be the truth. Recently, some Trump supporters plotted to kidnap the Democrat governor of Michigan — an act of violence that was in parts motivated by Donald Trump’s tweets and speeches.
One of the common tropes for both these groups is their belief in the strength of their leader, both strategic and physical.
If you are aware of Modi and his 56-inch chest, you’d not be surprised to know that many Trump supporters have tweeted images of Trump’s head on the body of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character) to show how powerful he is. (Note: Trump himself posted the picture on Twitter.) Both these groups also thrive on the ideas of victimisation by their minority communities and would, as is proven multiple times, indulge in violent and antisocial acts to assert their power. The proclivity toward asserting power through violence has been a constant in both groups of followers.
As Coates said of Trump, the first white president of the US is also the most dangerous president of the US. And the scary part is that those assigned to analyse him are too fearful to name his essential nature because they too are implicated in it. It is the same with India. My fear is that by the time we realise this, the leader would have been long gone, only his imprints left on the tattered footnotes of India’s story.
Coates called Trump the first white president of the US because that was the only thing about him that Coates could see advertised. Similarly, while India has had almost all Hindu prime ministers, Modi is singularly the most Hindu of them. And it’s not because of any special significance of his religiosity, but had he not been a Hindu, there was nothing else about him that would have made him what he ended up becoming: the first prime minister of Hindu India.
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