With the whole world lurching towards populism, nationalism, and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism, it can tempting to sit around drawing parallels between various deplorables. Marine Le Pen is to Matteo Salvini as Putin is to Erdoğan. Chan-o-cha is Thailand’s Bolsonaro, who is Brazil’s Orbán, who is Hungary’s whomever.
Last week, as the results of the Indian election came in, and as it became clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party were going to be returned to power with a larger majority than anyone predicted, some pundits were quick to warn against such comparisons, which others, inevitably, were already beginning to make. Modi is not Donald Trump, the pundits reminded us, and India is not the United States.
Well, no, but surely that much was obvious? As Modi never tires of reminding his supporters, he comes from humble beginnings. Indeed, he got his start working as a chai wala near a bus station. Trump only became a public figure because his father was unwise enough to loan him the dosh. Modi’s faith, while exclusionary and dangerous, is at the very least genuine, while Trump is a born-again heathen who shits on a golden toilet and sins as though by reflex. This is to say nothing of the yawning differences between the Indian and American electorates themselves. (I suppose an argument could be made that regional identity matters a great deal in both countries, but even that’s pretty relative, with the US lacking anything like the system of smaller regional and language-based parties that have traditionally played such an important role in India.)
But to pretend that no comparisons can be made is to ignore the comparisons that should be. The manner in which Modi and Trump have normalised the language of hate and division—and, by normalising it, have encouraged it—is first among these.
Under Modi and his surrogates, India’s Muslims have been referred to, with ever increasing regularity, as ‘infiltrators’, ‘termites’ and ‘outsiders’. During the campaign, when BJP president Amit Shah told a campaign rally that the party would ‘remove every single infiltrator from the country, except [Buddhists], Hindus, and Sikhs,’ he was sending a message, not only to India’s Muslim population, but also, more importantly, to those who would do it harm. (That such terms recall Nazi characterisations of Jews should not be surprising. The BJP is the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organisation that arose at around the same time as classical fascism and took many of its cues from Hitler and Mussolini.) When Trump calls Mexicans thieves and rapists, or describes neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people’, he sends similar messages of tacit support and encouragement.
It would be wrong to call this sort of thing dog-whistling. At this volume, and with this lack of subtlety, it’s less a dog whistle than what Veep recently called a dog leaf-blower.
The trickle-down effects of such rhetoric are obvious, and often startlingly immediate. Two days after Modi’s reelection, a Muslim man was beaten in Madhya Pradesh on suspicion of carrying beef. (Beef lynchings—instances of Hindu mobs beating and sometimes killing Muslims suspected of selling beef—have doubled year on year since Modi first came to power.) The man was also forced to beat the woman he was traveling with. That evening, in Gurugram, another man was beaten on his way home from the local mosque after a group of men told him to remove his skullcap and chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (‘Hail to Lord Ram’). On Sunday morning, a Muslim man in Bihar was shot at for having ‘a Muslim name’. (‘What are you doing here?’ his alleged assailant asked him. ‘You should go to Pakistan.’) On Sunday evening, Dr. Arun Gadre, a noted author and gynaecologist, was surrounded by a gang of men in New Delhi’s Connaught Place neighbourhood and made to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as well.
America’s situation speaks for itself: Charlottesville, the Tree of Life, Poway. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the US experienced a 17 per cent jump in hate crimes in the first year of Trump’s presidency alone, with many ascribing the increase to the way in which he speaks. We might also look a little closer to home. Less than six months after Pauline Hanson introduced her ‘OK to be white’ motion to the floor of the Senate, Australian politicians were left scrambling to draw a line between their rhetoric and the Christchurch mosque shooter. Nearly twenty years after John Howard declared that ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’, Australia has become strangely, shamefully inured to these things, most recently ignoring the wave of post-election suicide attempts that have occurred on the South Pacific concentration camps established in our name.
The spike in communal violence under Modi (as well as caste and gender violence) has not disqualified him from office. In fact, given how little he has delivered on every other front, the opposite is true. When I spoke to some white-collar workers in Mumbai about the prime minister’s long line of broken promises—the twenty million jobs that never materialised, the smart cities that remain but a twinkle in his eye—they insisted that he needed more time. Half a decade wasn’t long enough to deliver (or apparently to even get started on) the big-ticket items he promised five years ago.
But one only had to scratch the surface a little—to ask about Kashmir, say, or about so-called ‘love jihad’—to realise that the BJP’s economic promises were entirely beside the point. These men (and they were all men) were going to vote for the prime minister again because the prime minister made it acceptable for them to hate.
This is the ultimate lesson of Modi’s reelection: that a leader without any signature accomplishments (and more than a few signature failures) can be returned to power, possibly on an even greater wave of support, as long as they run on a platform of fear and loathing, hate and division. It goes without saying that Trump doesn’t know any other way to campaign.
As Modi (and Scott Morrison) will tell you, it also helps you’ve got a bought-and-paid-for media machine on your side, as Modi did with the sycophantic and bloodthirsty war-mongers on Indian television and in the press (to say nothing of his online army of trolls), and are running against an opposition that lends itself, rightly or wrongly, to charges of elitism. In Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the famed Nehru-Gandhi family, which has been fielding prime ministers since independence and still hasn’t realised that dynastic politics are as dead in India as they are everywhere else, he found the perfect foil. In Australia, Morrison had the Murdoch press and Bill Shorten. In America, Trump has Fox News and nearly two-dozen Democrats just waiting to eat each other alive on the debate stage. (Democrats would do well to note Gandhi’s failure to build an anti-Modi coalition between the Indian National Congress and various regional opposition parties as well. While the US may not work in quite the same way, the takeaway is clear: unite or die.)
Yes, there are some comparisons to be made. Yes, they’re necessarily generalisations—get too specific and you risk turning the whole thing into a parlour game—but generalisations can be edifying, too. In any case, they’re the kind of generalisations that should have anyone opposed to Trump, and to populism more generally, worried.