Guest post by RAMA SRINIVASAN
Prime Minister Modi is set to meet President Trump on June 26 and we can anticipate an exciting contest between bear hugs and crushing handshakes. We indeed live in interesting times where symbols rather than spoken words determine the fate of nations (Trump is rumoured to have partly pulled out of the Paris Agreement after losing a handshake duel with the new French President). Both Modi and Trump deploy symbols effectively to further a conservative agenda that is in many ways self-serving rather than ideologically dogmatic. I wondered if a list of ways in which they are different despite being strikingly similar in many ways might be an interesting experiment but all my points could be bracketed under one larger word: privilege. Everything that follows in this article are ways in which this privilege operates in the case of Trump and how the lack of the same has shaped much of Modi’s career.
The initial idea for this article came from Shiv Visvanathan’s piece on ways in which he had underestimated Modi. Many of these were essentially in reference to Modi’s obsession with power, which can even make Hindutva ideology subservient to his cause.
I too must admit that I underestimated Modi, especially in the first few years of his rule. As India stumbled from one crisis to another and Modi leaped from one country to another I had come to believe that he doesnot have a plan. And when that one plan – that infamous Demonetisation was rolled out – I perceived it as a failure, dead on arrival. The suffering it caused in its wake dented Modi’s popularity and a more diverse set of people now criticised and derided the man openly. Mitron was forced out of his vocabulary.
Demonetisation is also widely regarded as the news that stole Trump’s thunder in the wake of his election victory. A laughable delusion but so evocative of the deep sense of inferiority some (middle class) Indians nurture.While India looks up to United States constantly, this attention has never been reciprocated. And so consumed were Americans in their post-election misery that demonetisation did not create much empathy even among the bleeding-heart White Americans who are more internationally oriented let alone those inward-looking electorate that had found in Trump someone they could relate too.
When Trump took over the presidency in January, he was supposed to have one of the lowest popularity ratings any American president is said to have had. Modi, meanwhile, suffered only a slight setback from demonetisation and still retained much of his popularity. His magnetic hold over many (Hindu) Indians was intact. It is in this moment that I began to realise that I had indeed underestimated him. And living in the United States during that country’s transitional phase I realised that Modi had a plan all along, it was just not demonetisation.
Modi and Trump came to power at a moment when marginalised people in both countries (racial minorities and lower classes in US and rural non-elite in India)had seen some basic protections. The respective regimes had indulged corporates at various levels but they had also instituted at least two groundbreaking laws to protect the poor: NREGA in India and ACA in US.
The governance had managed to disrupt hierarchies, prompting middle and upper middle classes (though Americans do not understand class categories well) to lead the movement for a regime change in both countries. Of course other classes voted for these leaders as well but the spearheading forces of these movements, I would argue, were the middle classes, who stand to lose their relative position of privilege in a society with basic social welfare measures.
In both countries, I was exposed to a rhetoric against the liberal elite but as we have found out in both cases it was resentment against intellectuals who had so far controlled discourses. The anti-elitists were very often from middle classes, at times economically less vulnerable than the intellectuals they resented. In Trump and Modi, people had found a leader like themselves, a person who ostensibly thought and spoke like them.
With these two as representatives, anti-elitists did not feel inferior anymore – or so they thought. The existence of myths like ‘demonetisation stole America’s thunder’ shows how inferiority complex has only dug deeper. Visvanathan had predicted this in 2014 already: once Modi was elected, people realised that there was a paucity of ideas. A vacuum his propaganda machine has been unable to fill even with the cacophony over cows. The deafening silence over policy has only increased since demonetisation failed despite all the propaganda machinery invested in its support and the economy as slowed down in what some critics are calling a ‘Modi Slowdown’. As critics have often joked this BJP government is UPA plus a cow.
Meanwhile, in his first week Trump had already started working on the flawed rhetoric on immigration and healthcare that had worked for him during the campaign. His failed attempts had earned him flak but the stage was also set for him to claim the mantle of a proactive president blocked at every turn by forces beyond his control. But Trump did not care enough for this narrative because it made him look weak in his own eyes. Surely he is still popular among many who voted for him but in his frank outrage that he was not to have his own way Trump revealed that he can tell stories but he cannot craft a narrative. His stories were evocative of a popular trope in American discourses against immigration and social welfare but he does not have discursive authority.
Modi, on the other hand, possesses this very skill. He has carefully controlled his narrative, his failures are not his own and his successes belong to no one else. He does not have to espouse Hindutva, his CV already testifies to his beliefs on this matter. His focus on economy similarly fools no one at this point, not even those who use the mythical dream of development to support his rule. Modi represents Hindu self-interest like Trump represents White self-interest but he does not often give critics the pleasure of quoting him on this front. He has also ensured videos of his gauravyatras periodically disappear from the internet. Visvanathan wrote in his recent article that Modi has skillfully transformed saying into a form of doing but I would argue that he has also managed this with things he does not address. Actions of gaurakshaks, for example, become feathers in his cap without any effort on his own part.
For a man who enjoys speaking, he has communicated surprisingly little in the last three years. His words are only meant to keep signifiers between him and his admirers alive. He alludes to enemies and hints at conspiracies and his followers read enough and more of the subtext from his spoken words. The message is apparently clear to them and the critics who point logical inconsistencies don’t matter. I cannot find the news report anymore but he was once quoted as saying that ‘modern thinkers’ will make fun of his speeches for 24 hours. Our jokes probably do hurt him – he refrained from using his favourite term mitron in his December 31 address to the nation because of mean jokes – but he does not broadcast his woes. His followers who interpret his codes dexterously take care of the critics.
When one sees Trump lashing out at everyone from Alec Baldwin to Marilyn Streep, one cannot but admire Modi’s restraint. He has but considerable experience in suppressing his instincts in service of his ambitions. While defending his fashion consciousness he admitted that he had always liked the idea of wearing nice clothes.All those years spent wearing unbecoming khakhi shorts seem today long periods in his life where he was denying to himself who he really was. Who he really was is a man motivated by power for its own sake. Visvanathan is not the first one to write that Hindutva can be subservient to the cause of Modi. Ashis Nandy had already pointed out in 2007 that power had defanged him.
He has not repealed NREGA like Trump has attempted with ACA. He has used many of UPA’s existing welfare measures and passed them off as examples of his own benevolence. Modi has, as I had written in another piece, transformed himself into a symbol. He does not just mold his speech according to his audience, he becomes a different person. This is in essence the key difference between the two despite their overwhelming similarities. Trump lives in an alternate reality bubble of his own creation while Modi inhabits the bubble of his audience. Trump cannot help being just himself while Modi will willingly take on any role as long as he is in the position of power.
Both leaders demand unwavering loyalty and an established hierarchy that sets them a cut above others. Neither of them is reciprocal, especially not towards opportunistic supporters. They have consolidated power by attempting to eliminate checks and balances and keeping a very small circle of aides, almost all of whom are privileged men in their own societies. But while Modi sets a lot in store for loyalty of these aides because he can only trust a select few, Trump probably does not know the difference between loyalty and trust.
Trump has never worked for anyone else before his stint at presidency – though he does not quite realise this, he is now answerable to the American people in his new job – and has probably not been thwarted very often. Modi’srise to power has been a very different one as Vinod Jose has previously tracked. Apart from his (hyper) masculine privilege nothing in his background guarantees unchecked power the way Trump’s does. In fact his background forces even some of his diehard critics on the Left grudgingly acknowledge him for his subaltern roots.
Like everything else, Modi’s subalternism is also, at this point, an exaggerated performance but it works for anti-elitists on both the left and the right who refuse to engage with some of Rahul Gandhi’s more interesting interviews, dismissing him off with ludicrous comparisons. The lack of privilege in Modi’s background both assists him in maintaining his firm grasp of power and allows many critical voices to slide away as elitist rants. Voices on the Left even aid him with their averse attitude towards Rahul, who was born with privilege, and their grudging admiration for Modi’s seemingly subaltern speech.
As I write down my reflections I am now more disillusioned than before about the resistance. Modiis immensely adaptable while our criticism is jaded and cannot last 24 hours in public memory. He has remained popular for three years despite a paucity of ideas and the failure of his one big policy initiative. If Trump is marked by an excess that derails his presidency, Modi is an empty signifier that follows trends and hashtags with repeated success.
Rama Srinivasan is Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Saale), Germany.