Imagine an election that divides a nation irrevocably. The larger-than-life leader of one of the two national parties rises after a bitter internecine leadership battle. He faces a dynastic standard-bearer of the two-term ruling party who happens to be a woman. His campaign encompasses a media blitz and raucous rallies with masses of supporter who are driven into a frenzy by his inflammatory rhetoric that only has a malleable relationship with facts or reality. He spends the campaign insulting his rivals, threatening foreign powers, promising the moon (but without giving any details), referring to himself in the third person, and basically assuring the voters that his mere election would bring immediate change to the nation.
As he gains electoral strength the nation’s liberals, in denial for far too long, react with horror and some promise to leave the country in case he is elected. They predict Armageddon for the future of the country. His minders assure the press that he will settle down once elected and behave in a manner befitting his post.
Sounds familiar? Yes, it could describe Donald Trump, but it also describes Narendra Modi’s triumphant election as Prime Minister of India in 2014. The similarities are uncanny.
Other nations may be aghast by Trump’s meteoric political rise but we Indians seem far less surprised, perhaps as a result of having witnessed something similar in our 2014 general election. Admittedly, Modi was a sitting Chief Minister of a state and not a billionaire businessman, but his approach to governing Gujarat was increasingly shaped with a corporate mindset. After the 2002 riots that marked his reputation Modi spent a decade assiduously rebranding Gujarat as a business-friendly state and an economic powerhouse. The so-called Gujarat Model was the basis for his general election campaign and pitch for credibility in the eyes of voters.
Donald Trump is using the Trump brand, which he has built over a decades-long business career with media savvy and showmanship. In addition, both Modi and Trump recognised early the usefulness of social media, especially twitter, and have used it as a lethally effective political weapon to build an army of online supporters, to feed the ceaseless cable news cycle, and to keep rivals off balance with quick reactions.
Now there are, of course, major differences between the two leaders. Modi is a dyed-in-the-wool member of the Hindu Right and his majoritarian politics was built over a lifetime of service to the saffron movement. On the other hand Trump’s commitment to core conservative doctrine of the Republican Party seems flimsy and inauthentic at the best of times. Also Modi has shied away from interviews over the last decade whereas Trump seems to do half-a-dozen live appearances on a normal day without breaking a sweat.
So can Trump replicate Modi’s success in a general election? When Modi began to emerge as his party’s likely Prime Ministerial candidate, there was a many who thought that his divisive reputation would polarise the electorate with minorities voting strategically to his party’s disadvantage. I wrote as much at the time. What we underestimated was the unpopularity of the then incumbent government, stained by corruption scandals, and the voters’ hunger for change overcoming any doubts about Modi. They wanted change at all costs and Modi promised it to them with braggadocio and a series of vicious diatribes against the Congress Party using the Gandhi family’s multi-generation record in power against them.
In Trump’s case, he is up against the Clinton campaign machine, which will certainly be formidable but also carries a quarter of century of baggage that Trump could use to his advantage. He and his aides have repeatedly declared in recent days that even the Monica Lewinsky episode will not be a subject beyond the pale if the situation so warrants. A nasty campaign ahead is almost a given. Denial and wishful thinking was not a very effective strategy against Modi in 2014 and the same is proving true with Trump so far.
So what does Prime Minister Modi’s two years in office possibly tell us about how a possible Trump administration would govern? Tall campaign promises are remembered by voters and soon turn into political jibes from the opposition. Modi’s campaign vow to deposit 15 lakh rupees in every voter’s bank account a share of repatriated funds from illegal foreign bank accounts held by Indians is a case in point of a promise too far. A resultant voter backlash was partly the reason for why the Bharatiya Janata Party did not win a single state election in 2015. President Trump’s promise of a wall along the southern border paid for by the Mexican Government could very well share a similar fate.
Also, never underestimate the power of the Establishment to neutralise the most volatile renegade who rides into the nation’s capital even with a decisive political mandate. Modi’s supporters have now taken to blaming the cabal of bureaucrats and an obstructionist opposition for his government’s sub-par performance. Modi has found his vaunted micro-managing administrative style not as successful or suitable when dealing with the behemoth that is India’s central government. Should he be elected, Trump, with zero experience in public administration, would needless to say find his transition far, far more of an uphill challenge.
Modi has revelled in spending a great part of his tenure until now travelling across the globe, including multiple visits to the United States, with another one coming up next month during which he will address a joint-meeting of the U.S. Congress. It is not inconceivable that the Indian Prime Minister could meet the presumptive Republican nominee for President during the visit. They would have more than a few campaign notes to exchange because, as Modi has come to realise, the art of winning elections and the science of governance are mutually exclusive skills.