By Wajahat Qazi
As the forces of nativism and populism gain traction across the world, the idea and practice of liberal democracy stands weakened. History, obviously, has not ended; it is in the making. This is perhaps best reflected in the route to power and ascendancy of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi respectively- the former in the United States and the latter in India. Both Trump and Modi rode on the waves of angst and disaffection against the “establishment” and “elitism” and rallied the “excluded” classes of their countries to their respective “causes”. Even though, both Modi’s and Trump’s rise to power coincides somewhat and their agendas are roughly similar, albeit in different permutations and combinations and even contexts, the profiles of the two men are different.
Modi rose through the ranks of what is called the “Sangh Parivar”- the RSS and the VHP combine that forms the crucible the BJP- and ultimately ended as the Prime Minister of India. Trump, to the contrary, is the son of a German immigrant, who has had it made, so to speak. The man cut his teeth in the property business and is a billionaire. But, by championing the cause of those excluded in the United States by the gale of globalization and free- wheeling, rampant, market fundamentalism, whose defining feature is raw individualism and hence social Darwinism, in the sense of the survival of the fittest and leaving the vulnerable of society by the way side- Trump endeared himself to a substantial portion of the American electorate. Both present themselves as strong men who offer a “fix” to the problems that suffuse their respective countries.
The rise of Trump and Modi is neither an aberration nor an isolated phenomenon. In fact, it is a reflection of the times that we live in. Characterized by great fluidity and flux, the “interesting times” that we live in, have brought in and inaugurated great turbulence and uncertainty. Be it the large megatrend of historical import, that goes by the name of globalization, the people flows that globalization has engendered(mostly to the West), free(r) trade that weakened the authority of the state to some extent, or the disaggregation of production in the form of Global Value or Supply Chains which led to the migration of blue collar work to developing countries, or the “culture shock” engendered by unprecedented intensity of immigrant flows to the host societies of the West, the enrichment of merely the elite- or those who were well positioned to take advantage of globalization and the variant of capitalism it unleashed at the expense of the welfare of the excluded masses, and other variables that accompanied far reaching changes incubated in final decades of the 20th century, the one overarching theme that undergirded these was the loss of control and even disempowerment of the “average” citizens, across countries. The few benefited at the expense of the many. Amounting to economic disempowerment, it was also complemented by a feeling of being swamped by abstract forces at many levels and domains. It was the comingling of these multiple trends and structural features that gave birth to both Trump and Modi. Both offered identity politics and ethnic nationalism as an antidote to the loss of power, autonomy and general anxiety that these trends generated- an exclusive Hindu identity and the politics of Hindutva in the case of Modi and exclusive White nationalism in the case of Trump. And both resonated with the people.
While all this explains the rise of Trump and Modi, it tells us nothing about the consequences and the implications of the two men’s ascendancy to power. If the rhetoric of both is to be believed and analyzed to arrive at an assessment , then it would not be far- fetched to hold that both Trump and Modi’s assuming the highest offices of their countries is paradigm shattering. In the case of Modi, the “Idea of India” , that is conventionally accepted is going to be upended and a new “Idea of India” that corresponds to the forbearers of the ideology of Hindutva held to be the alternative. Trump seeks to make America “great” by making the United States retreat into itself, forego commitments to the country’s allies and perhaps even dissolve the post War International Order, among other things. But, there is always – historically and contemporarily- a divergence between rhetoric and reality. With power, for example, comes responsibility and power cannot be exercised in isolation. The causal processes of governance, the reality and practice of international relations, domestic politics and how it relates to international politics, plus other structural factors preclude accurate translation of ideology and /or rhetoric into reality. Consider these counter factuals: despite Trump’s immigration ban , he cannot really deport Muslim Americans from the United States. They are there to stay. Or , consider Trump’s approach to the ISIS; even with all the power at his command, Trump cannot take on the ISIS without the support of other countries. On trade, despite Trump’s protectionist and mercantilist instincts, he cannot entirely roll back international trade. The same , in a different permutation and combination, holds true for Modi. Despite the obvious and overt exclusion of Muslims from the echelons of power and politics, Modi can neither deport Indian Muslims to Pakistan nor take other extreme, draconian measures against them. Similarly, despite the wide , deep and growing animus among many sections of Indian society to Pakistan and a growing clamor for military action against the country, Modi cannot declare war against it-unless something spectacular happens. There are then natural limits and constraints on both Modi and Trump. But this would be “cold comfort” to those at the sufferance of the two- the liberal intelligentsia and the victims of the politics of polarization in India and the United States. Both the United States and India are at an “inflection point”. What will determine the nature, shape, form and contours of both the countries will be determined by the nature of the “counter narrative “that is offered to the populist politics and policies of polarization and narrow, exclusionary and chauvinistic nationalisms that undergird these. The question now is: when will this “counter narrative” see the light of the day? We shall wait and watch.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org