With elections underway in India and already in the early stages in the United States, comparisons between Modi and Trump seem like an easy way to understand the political frameworks at play in both countries. Given the predominant narratives around each of these world leaders, the surface level connection is a no-brainer. It goes something like this: both ran as “outsider” candidates on platforms to fight entrenched political corruption, but in reality are populist demagogues who leverage bigotry and empty promises to gain support.
This simple comparison is incredibly misguided, and it’s led journalists and commentators in both the US and India into murky territory. On the one hand, liberal “alternative” media commentators (those with reputations for their critiques of establishment politics and media) such as Glenn Greenwald, The Young Turks, and Kyle Kulinski, to name a few, have uncritically parroted headlines and narratives about Modi as a repressive strongman. On the other hand, so-called conservative Indians might take a more favorable view of Trump— they’ve seen what mainstream media has done to distort Modi’s goals and values, and apply a hefty dose of skepticism to reports about the much-maligned US president.
The comparison is deeply flawed, however, even on the most basic levels. Modi has a reputation for being a hard worker from a humble background, while Trump became popular because of his business empire created after a “small $1 million loan” from his father, and he takes frequent golf breaks on his own resorts. Modi is a gifted and articulate public speaker, while Trump has a brash and vulgar speaking style and occasionally tweets out egregious typos. Modi adopts a tone of nationalism and inclusive development, and has enacted bold policies to fight corruption, even while his opposition and the media smear him as a bigot and threat to secular democracy. Donald Trump, however, has indeed proven himself a populist demagogue, and has done little to support the white working class who form his core base of support. He fully merits criticism for this, but earns a mind-boggling amount of media attention for the false accusation that he colluded with the Russian government to win his election. The true comparison lies in the way that the reactionary narrative around each leader illustrates the manipulative power of political and media elites in both countries.
Unraveling Accusations Against Modi:
For English speakers in the US, information on Modi comes with the label of “conservative Hindu nationalist” and sloppy comparisons between the ideology of Hindutva and white supremacy (ironically, the same set of liberals who refrain from using the phrase “Islamic extremism” have no problem instantly believing in and perpetuating something called “Hindu extremism”). First of all, the conservative-liberal framework in the US is so different from that in India that Modi would be labeled as left to far left on the American political spectrum, given some of his policies. Additionally, numerous academics and journalists describe Hindutva as a sectarian religious movement without recognizing those who support Hindutva as a cultural and nationalist movement, not a religious one (Hindu, after all, was simply a term created by ancient Persians to label the region and society along the Indus River).
One would assume that such an allegedly bigoted leader of the world’s largest political party would leave a trail of actions and policies that would directly target minority communities in the most harmful ways. English language media would lead you to believe this, but that is simply not the case. There are plenty of good-faith debates to be had about the success of Modi’s policies, but he is above all a nationalist, and his policies reflect that more than anything else.
Modi primarily takes the blame for sectarian violence, especially violence targeted at Muslims and Dalits. Critics paint Modi as responsible for inciting anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat while he served as the Chief Minister there in 2002. Many narratives of this gruesome event elide factors that mitigate Modi’s responsibility for its outcomes, such as the fact that said riots broke out after an attack on Hindu pilgrims and that the Supreme Court of India cleared Modi of any responsibility for the violence after an extended investigation.
Another topic that arises frequently in articles about Modi is that of cow lynchings, a type of vigilante justice portrayed as religiously motivated Hindu mob violence against those who consume beef. This portrayal routinely misses the context of the billion dollar illegal and violent cattle smuggling industry in India that impacts the safety and livelihoods of rural Indian farmers who find little or no recourse from law enforcement. To top that off, articles about cow lynchings most often cite numbers from the website India Spend, which simply uses google search results of English language news articles to collect information. At least one journalist has shown that India Spend even cherry picks the data it includes to favor violence committed by Hindus against minorities. And yet major English language news outlets continue to propagate stories based off of these numbers.
Critics are also quick to blame Modi for increased limitations of the press and violence enacted against journalists — both issues that are not unique to Modi or the BJP, or for which responsibility lies with a sole political party. They call a proposed immigration bill an attempt to “Hinduise” India, without discussing the core issue that the bill seeks to address — the legacy of Partition, which created a Muslim state (Pakistan, and the subsequent genocide and war that led to the creation of Bangladesh from East Pakistan) that led to the persecution and flight of other religious groups into India. They claim Modi has been cracking down on foreign funding for NGOs as a way to stifle dissent, when the government has raised concerns about a selection of NGOs improperly accounting for the use of their funds and engaging in activities like forced religious conversions.
**These bad faith critiques are especially insidious because they overshadow discussion of the actual roots of the issues — politicians can continue to use the debates as tools to rile up the emotions of voters without ever really trying to solve the problems they claim to care about so righteously. **
An American observer of Indian politics must dig a little deeper to understand the actual legislative accomplishments of the Modi government. One can debate how effective Modi’s policies have been, but he has not shirked his promises to fight corruption and prioritize development across India. A small sampling of his policies include:
• The Modi government launched an initiative to fund healthcare to 500 million people, making it the largest government healthcare scheme in the world. One would think that American leftists currently pushing for Medicare for All would be very excited about this, but they can’t seem to get past the first few negative headlines they read about Modi.
• He famously (or infamously, depending on your opinion) implemented demonetization to address the issue of dark money and tax evasion.
• He launched an ambitious program to provide toilet and sanitation facilities across the country.
• He created Aadhar, a new identification system aimed at streamlining access to government services, among numerous other potential uses.
• Under the Modi government, the oppressive practice of instant Triple Talak has been criminalized, a move that specifically benefits Muslim women.
BJP members are certainly not innocent of ever using divisive rhetoric, but Modi works to tailor a message of inclusivity. In contrast, one doesn’t have to hunt very long for a litany of instances when Trump has brazenly targeted minority groups in order to whip up support from a culturally conservative, economically fragile, white working class. He opened up his presidential campaign with a speech that fanned unfounded fears of Mexican immigrants being rapists, and encouraged the use of violence in response to a protestor at one of his rallies. He blatantly called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. He’s popularized a chant calling to “build the wall” on the US-Mexico border as a draconian but visually powerful measure to address undocumented immigration, and has called refugees crossing that border “animals”.
Trump’s rhetoric has not just been divisive and hateful. It’s also just been idiotic. Recently, Trump joked that the noise from windmills maybe causes cancer (he’s claimed that climate change is a global hoax perpetuated by China and extols the virtues of coal). He’s famous for his over the top use of superlatives to describe everything about himself.
Unlike Modi, Trump has not even attempted to stick to most of his his campaign promises, and instead has betrayed the interests of the very voters who put him into power. He claimed he would “drain the swamp” of corrupt elements in Washington, but instead has filled his cabinet with neocons pushing for war and a wealthy education privatizer whose brother runs a shady mercenary organization— and there are plenty of other swamp creatures where those came from. He also dubiously and alarmingly granted his own family security clearance within the government.
Under Obama’s presidency, Republican opposition swore to repeal and replace Obamacare, his signature healthcare legislation. Trump’s Congress pushed healthcare legislation that would have left millions with no health insurance, a plan so unpalatable that Trump could not even secure the votes of all of his own party to make it happen. Trump’s most sweeping legislation has been his tax cuts, which privilege corporations the wealthy far more than the middle or working classes. Trump has really only clearly followed through on those promises which blame minority groups for the pains of the white working class — his Muslim ban, which he was forced to rename a travel ban, and his wall, for which he shut down the government for a record amount of time.
Trump earns praise for the low unemployment rate, but this metric is an incredibly flawed way to measure the health of the economy. Not only does it not count people who have stopped looking for jobs altogether, and have therefore left the labor force, it does not account for underemployment — those Americans who need to work multiple jobs to earn a living wage or cover costs such as healthcare or childcare. Trump has done little to champion the causes of working people or promote initiatives that would increase access to healthcare, education, a living wage, or a clean environment to live and work. Instead, he’s adhered to the myth of “trickle down” economics while sloppily promoting hateful rhetoric and capitalizing on the weak appeal of his opponents.
The Failures of the Opposition:
The effort to malign Modi as someone only able to come to power because he leveraged bigotry and sectarian divisions is especially insidious in that it glosses over the gross corruption of the Congress government and absolves Modi’s opposition of any responsibility for not winning the trust and the votes of the people. The same phenomenon is happening with the Democrats’ opposition to Donald Trump.
One might think that in the process of describing what an awful and hateful ruler Modi is, journalists would take the time to consider why he became so popular in the first place. It’s here where the media’s bias in favor of the Congress Party truly comes to light. Part of what has made Modi and the BJP so popular in India is the corruption and ineptitude of their opposition, which has essentially ruled as a political dynasty almost nonstop since India’s independence. Prior to the BJP’s recent rise in popularity, Congress was caught in the 2G scandal, in which the government was charged with losing an estimated $45 billion in a throwaway telecommunications deal. And that was just one of the scandals. The Congress Party is quick to blame Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots, and yet quick to deny their role in the 1984 Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Congress cries that Modi’s government suppresses free speech, while in the meantime a Congress Chief Minister jails a young woman for sharing a silly photoshopped meme. Their finger pointing does nothing to absolve them of their own scandals and shortcomings.
The same applies to Trump’s rise. If one was following mainstream American media during the 2016 election, victory seemed all but imminent for the democrats. However, Hillary Clinton was one of the most unpopular candidates the party could have nominated, and a primary that was rife with corruption contributed to low voter turnouts that ultimately meant a win for Trump. When a cache of Democratic National Committee emails came to light via Wikileaks, the public was able to see clearly what many had already suspected — that Clinton was colluding with this allegedly neutral body to secure her nomination. This was made possible too with the dozens of party insiders known as superdelegates who rallied around Clinton, sometimes voting against the actual popular votes in their states. The emails revealed that the Clinton campaign actually wanted to prop up Trump to be the Republican nominee, as they thought he would be an easier candidate to defeat. The fallout around this email leak was so severe that the then Chair of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, resigned, and the party altered its rules around the use of superdelegates for future elections.
A subsequent book about the DNC’s actions revealed that the Clinton campaign immediately sought to promote the Russian interference narrative as a way to assign blame for their embarrassing defeat. So for years during Trump’s presidency, the Democratic Party establishment has pursued an investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The media, who also contributed to Trump’s rise through the billions of dollars of free air time they gave him during his primary campaign, has played along. Both the Democratic Party and the mainstream media have been eager to deflect responsibility for Trump’s election from themselves to a villainous foreign power. Last month the investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia ended with absolution for Trump, and yet democrats are just shifting the goalposts, latching onto accusations of obstruction of justice and critiquing the Attorney General’s conduct in the investigation.
The smears and obfuscation in both instances stem from entrenched authorities — the Congress Party and Lutyens media in India, and the Democratic Party establishment and liberal mainstream media in the US. In both cases, the loudest and most powerful opposition voices play the political game of virtue-signaling “resistance,” while placing the interests of voters secondary to the perpetuation of their status as cultural and political gatekeepers.