Narendra Modi and Donald Trump are quite different in many ways. We must beware of lazy arguments about them being two of a kind. But they share one trait that poses dangers not only to the countries that they lead but also, ironically, to the two men themselves.
Both of them appear unable to hold back from denouncing and humiliating political rivals, and other people and things that they dislike, even when it is tactically wise to show restraint.
Trump does this every day, with insulting outbursts on Twitter. News outlets that criticise him are “failing” sources of “fake news” and even “enemies of the people”. Much of Africa and many developing nations are “shithole” countries. Senator Ted Cruz, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, is “lyin’ Ted”, and of course Hillary Clinton is “crooked”.
Trump even sneers at allies who complain about some of his policies, people like Charles Koch, a billionaire who funds right-wing causes.
He gets away with much of this, but recently, he has gone so far that his recklessness may come back to bite him. His former personal lawyer and main fixer, Michael Cohen, is under investigation on suspicion of his – and possibly Trump’s – illegal acts.
Trump might have been shrewd enough to persuade Cohen to reveal nothing, perhaps with veiled references to a presidential pardon. But instead, he has poured venom on him. Trump’s new lawyer has likened Cohen to various well-known traitors.
In response, Cohen has hit back through his own lawyer, a famously ferocious attack dog. He opened the batting by releasing a tape that raises grave doubts about Trump’s claims to have no knowledge of payments of hush money to a woman with whom he allegedly had an affair. Trump responded with vilification.
Cohen is able to reveal much more. He has already contradicted Trump’s claim that he knew nothing about his son’s meeting with some Russians to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton. Such revelations may lead to the president’s undoing. We may eventually see the last two weeks, when Trump unleashed these tweets, as the period when things finally came unstuck for him. His inability to make nice, even with a man who can do him severe damage, leads him into acts of self harm.
Narendra Modi is far less impulsive and feverish than Trump. But his denunciations may also endanger him. As N. Mukhopadhyay has written, “heaping humiliation on his adversary is central to all Modi’s campaigns”. Like Trump, he finds it hard to deal gently with rivals, even when that would serve his interests.
Consider a speech in the Rajya Sabha in February 2015. The BJP lacked a majority there, so it needed support from rival parties to create new laws and programmes.
Modi began with soothing words. He called on the opposition to set aside political differences, and to help to get measures passed. They should not make every debate “a prestige issue”. He then offered a dose of humility. “If you think there is anything anti-farmer in the land acquisition Bill, I will change it… There may be some deficiencies, we don’t know everything.”
But he found it impossible, even for a few moments, to continue wooing the opposition. He soon veered towards what an Economic Times report called “his trademark abrasiveness, reserving some of his most biting comments for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act” which he would “preserve as a monument to failed Congress policies”. Modi could not prevent himself from rushing headlong from amelioration to scorn. It was self-defeating.
Modi and Trump differ in one important way. The key question about Trump is whether he goes too far with his insults. He is so personally insecure that he feels driven to denigrate anyone who mildly criticises him, including allies. Modi chooses his targets more carefully. The key question about him is whether his incendiary attacks still work.
They were effective during the 2014 elections because his rivals were then in power. His caustic condemnations resonated with voters’ frustration with the state and Central governments led by the Congress and other incumbents. But now that the BJP governs at the Centre and in 21 states, ridiculing powerless opposition leaders and parties is less convincing.
And yet the scorching attacks have kept coming. During the Bihar state election campaign in 2015, Modi said that Shaitan (Satan) had entered the body of Lalu Prasad, who did not then hold political office. The accusation flopped and the BJP lost. Later, Modi suggested that Manmohan Singh had committed something close to treason by hobnobbing with Pakistan. But is his staid predecessor a plausible traitor?
In the Karnataka state election campaign, Modi and BJP leaders referred to the Congress chief minister as “Mullah Siddaramaiah” and “Siddaravana”. But the Congress gained more votes than the BJP and then joined the Janata Dal (Secular) in forming a government.
Amit Shah has described rival parties as snakes, rats, cats and dogs. But since they are out of power, will voters really believe that they, and not the ruling BJP, should be blamed for their troubles?
Modi has far more self-control than Trump. But if he cannot bring himself to abandon scorn and venom in favour of more statesmanlike language, he may do himself and his party great harm.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City(1993) on the 1981 illicit liquor disaster in Karnataka.