Both campaigns revolved around illegal immigration, promises to bring about a change in governance and the demonisation of Islam.
Home minister and senior BJP leader Rajnath Singh is not known to speak irresponsibly or out of turn. Therefore, his words at the ‘parivartan’ rally in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, following the declaration of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, deserve to be taken note of.
Trump, Singh said, had invoked the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his presidential campaign. “Now he has become president. We should feel proud,” he said.
Modi gained global popularity through his foreign policies, he further argued. “This is the reason why a politician like Trump eulogised Modi’s image and agenda in order to boost his own prospects in the US presidential elections.”
The endorsement of Modi’s programmes by Trump – if it happened at all – took the form of an echo of Modi’s popular prime ministerial campaign slogan, “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar”, which the US presidential aspirant deployed in a 30-second video message by saying “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar”, directed at members of the Indian-American community.
The commercial, which ran at least 20 times a day on 20 different channels watched by the Indian-Americans, concluded with a crisp statement, “I am Donald Trump and I approve this message” along with a few tail-end excerpts of a speech he had delivered to the Republican Hindu Coalition.
In India, Trump’s audacious bid for the US presidency struck an emotive chord in the minds of the sympathisers of the now-ascendant Hindu Right and with the so-called Hindu Sena that operates from within a radical fringe position within that ideological formation, and which publicly held rites and rituals of sacred devotion to showcase its solidarity with Trump’s aspiration.
This was not a matter of surprise. Trump’s ultra-nationalist election platform, “Make America Great Again”, with its strong revivalist intonations, had a clear resonance with the Modi-led BJP campaign during the 2014 general election in India.
Modi’s repeated and relentless denunciation of India’s weak state under the Congress dispensation and his promise that if voted to power he would take on the enemies of the nation (read Islamic ‘terrorists’) – both internal and external – and his projection of the heady cocktail of cultural nationalism and national development as the panacea for all the ills of the nation, addressed the long-harboured anxieties of middle India that predominantly constitutes upper caste and middle class Hindus.
Through an extended period of economic stagnation, a poor investment climate and reduced job opportunities, the middle class Indian had become more and more resentful of the doles and subsidies that were being offered to the select ‘underprivileged’ sections of the population and perceived these measures to be measures of vote-bank appeasement.
Enter the Modi juggernaut with its claim to represent India as a whole, its eschewal of appeasement doctrines and an almost overnight erasure of the Hindu Hriday Samrat (The Emperor of Hindu hearts) profile of the ex-RSS pracharak. The formula worked miraculously and led to the BJP sweeping a historic 282 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha.
As journalist Rajdeep Sardesai summed it up later, “The 2014 election was, in the end, about the chhappan inch kee chhatti (56-inch chest) machismo of the politician from Vadnagar in Gujarat. To quote Right-wing columnist Swapan Dasgupta: ‘For some he was a modern-day Chhatrapati Shivaji who would finally make Hindus come into their own, to others he was the poor boy next door who had made it big in the ugly and cruel world of Delhi and to still yet others, he was the great liberator of the economy from sloth and socialist incompetence. What united these divergent strands was the belief that this victory would usher in proverbial happy days.'”
How has the Trump victory in 2016 been any different from the victory of Modi in 2014? Like Modi, Trump too exuded a no-nonsense, get-things-done approach. Come January, “all things will be possible,” his daughter, Ivanka Trump, had told her compatriots on the last night of the Republican Party convention. And Trump himself assured the crowd that since “nobody knew the system better than me… I alone can fix it.” A non-establishment person, he vowed to invade the establishment and turn it upside down. Just as Modi was an outsider to the administrative protocols of New Delhi in 2014, Trump is an outsider to the administrative protocols of Washington D.C. in 2016.
Both profess to carry the people’s mandate of their respective countries. But the nature and the trajectory of the change envisioned in both cases is highly questionable. Trump’s constant refrain – purposefully stoking the apprehensions of the white working classes in particular – about the threat posed by illegal immigrants to their livelihoods and lifestyles, often manifested itself in an idiom of extreme helplessness.
Thus, the immigrants were described as “flowing in like water,” an irresistible influx, to which the sole solution could be and should be to “take our country back” from them. The hero of this war-like repossession enterprise would be Trump and Trump alone. “Build a wall” hosts of excited supporters egged him on as he hyped up his rants.
Illegal immigration from across the borders featured prominently in Modi’s discourse as well. Among the BJP’s major election planks, deployed in states whose boundaries are adjoining those of Muslim-majority neighbours such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been to play up the dangers to the demographic equilibrium of society and to national security represented by the clandestine traffic of foreign nationals into the Indian territory.
This tactic of whipping up a fear-psychosis among naturalised citizens at the prospect of being swamped over by hordes of aliens is ironic in the light of the surreptitious measures being taken by the BJP government at the Centre to grant citizenship status to Hindus from other South Asian nations.
These steps, and the political assumptions attendant upon them, are a part of the Hindu Right’s old, old history of demonisation of Islam and all that Islam stands for. A virulent contemporary articulation of this prejudice came from Modi himself in the wake of the assault on the World Trade Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. Appearing on The Big Fight – an orchestrated debate that is aired once a week on NDTV – he made it plain that he would not beat around the bush. “It has taken an attack like 9/11 for India’s pseudo-secular media to finally use a term like Islamic terrorism…”
Was this not what Trump too was destined to say a mere 15 years down the line following another terrible terrorist strike in the US, this time in Orlando, Florida. “I refuse to be politically correct. I want to do the right thing. I want to straighten things out. I want to make America great again.”
Was this the shape of things to come that the poet W.B. Yeats predicted when he wrote:
“The best lack all conviction,
The worst are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand…?”
Tapan Basu is a member of the faculty at the Department of English at the University of Delhi.