Back to India after a week’s trip from Trump land, one cannot escape the palpable political weather in both the countries. Large parts of the US may be freezing due to the polar vortex but politically, the climate is hot in the US as in India. While India is already in the grip of election fever with the Lok Sabha polls just couple of months away, in the US, presidential elections are due in 2020! Even then, the political chatter is all about if Donald Trump will get re-elected or not! Same is the question in India with Narendra Modi!
Ever since Modi, a rank outsider to what is now infamously called as the Lutyen’s Delhi, became the Prime minister of India in 2014 and Trump more famed as an “Apprentice” politician and a real estate baron became the President of America, comparing both these leaders and bringing out the similarities in them have been favourite pastimes of the commentariat. Probably rightly so! Here are two leaders who have defied many established conventions to chart their own course in governing their respective countries. The similarities in their methods and more importantly the narratives around the personalities are difficult to ignore.
In terms of the evident similarities, the liberal media’s scorn in India and the US for Modi and Trump respectively comes first, I guess. For example, all through the time I was in the US, TV news was engulfed by the Government Shutdown due to a budget fight centred on Trump’s demand for $5bn to fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. On TV, the built up narrative showed Trump as the central villain for bringing America to such a crisis. Images and clips of federal employees suffering due to loss of pay dominated most of the screens. In California where I was during that week, on the streets, it was business as usual! I can compare this to the narrative which was played up during Demonetisation in India. Of sufferings, deaths and what not. However, in election after election in the aftermath of Demonetisation, BJP swept the polls! Not surprisingly both Modi and Trump treat the main stream media with contempt. Trump calls channels as Fake news generators, Modi calls them ‘Bazaaru’ media! And therefore, they prefer to engage with the public more actively through Social media.
The other point of convergence is their response to border security. Trump has been vocal about constructing the wall along the Mexico border to prevent illegal migration into his country. In India, along the North East, the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by the BJP is touted as a similar action to deal with illegal migration from Bangladesh. Likewise, both Trump and Modi during their respective campaigns had raised alarm over worldwide Islamic terror without beating the bush.
Yet another commonality in Trump and Modi is their approach to external affairs. It is said that Modi being a Gujarati always brings a sense of ‘Dando’ (business) to the table. In the case of Trump too, we have seen so far that he has been running the United States of America as another Trump Corporation! Again, in the context of External affairs and diplomacy, historical legacy and precedents have not come in the way of taking bold initiatives for both Modi and Trump. For example, in India, while we have always treated Israel as our friend for so many decades, Modi has been the 1st Prime Minister to make a historical visit to Israel and set the optics right. Rubbing our friends in the Gulf on the wrong side – a historical reason for not taking our friendship with Israel to the next level was set aside by Modi. Similarly in the US, Trump has been brazenly demolishing some legacy diplomatic hangovers like supporting Pakistan with aid even when it was not doing anything on curbing terror. There are few other examples as well like seeing China into its eye and not withholding the import curbs.
And the other thing I noticed which is quite common in the case of both Modi and Trump is this. While seeing what is said about these two in the media one may get an impression that they are steadily losing ground and are grossly unpopular. However, the reality may turn out to be different. In the US, I noticed that calling yourself a supporter of Trump can make you a social untouchable and therefore, people tend to stay quiet rather than expressing themselves. Like my friend said, he was routinely derided by his pals for riding a “Triumph” bike mistaking it for a “Trump” bike! Similarly in India, seeing the narrative in main stream media, an outsider can get an impression that Modi Is finished and his popularity has hit rock bottom. Those of us with ear to the ground know that the truth is far from that!
Beyond these, there could be more meeting grounds as well for Modi and Trump! Like they are both eternally on “Campaign” Mode”! So, while it is very tempting just to draw parallels between Trump and Modi and call it as the beginning of a new era in political personalities, I do feel that there is a need to pause here. I think beyond the veneer of similarities between Modi and Trump, I do feel that never the twain shall meet for many reasons.
Like, while Modi and his office are active on social media, you can never find one politically inappropriate tweet from Modi. In the case of Trump, we have to search for one which is not!
Though Trump has been active in his direct communication through Social media, he has still respected the traditions of giving interviews and doing press conferences regularly. Modi, on the other hand, has shown high contempt to main stream media and has not addressed one presser since he took office. He has been quite stingy on giving personal interviews as well. His Man Ki Baat can be deciphered by the people through the radio and not through the mouths and writings of journalists!
Unlike Modi, I must say that Trump has shown more commitment to the promises he made during his campaign. Right or wrong, he has been diligently ticking off the promises he made one by one whether it is corporate tax reduction, steps to prevent illegal migration and so on. I would say that his stand on the Shutdown was another visible demonstration of his commitment to his manifesto. In the case of Modi, it has been a case of “Glass half empty”.
On the question of jobs, Trump has a better record to show certainly. A recent report said that US created 304,000 jobs against 170,000 expected just in January smashing all expectations. In India, the question of job creation is a mystery with no clear answers. As Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar points out in his Sunday TOI column, “An employment crash of the catastrophic sort indicated by the NSSO and CMIE typically occurs only in terrible, deep economic depressions. But India has been averaging over 7% GDP growth, and is the fastest-growing major economy in the world. Never in history has a miracle economy, growing at over 7%, witnessed a collapse of employment.”
A big difference between Modi and Trump has been the way they handle their teams. In India, Modi has his own handpicked team in his PMO. Most of them are from his erstwhile Gujarat cadre or with a stint in Sangh parivar backed Vivekananda foundation. They have stayed with him so far and we have not seen any public dissent against Modi. However in the case of Trump, we have lost count of his team members who have either quit or got fired! I don’t think any of the original staunch supporters of Trump are still sticking to him in his close circuit. I don’t think Modi will fire a subordinate over Twitter!
Another important point to add here is the influence of the family. In the case of Modi, his family has been kept at a far distance with no one occupying any real or virtual posts of power. In the case of Trump it is exactly the opposite. His daughter Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner have been in the thick of policy making. Morality around conflict of interest has been thrown out of the window. And this I feel may return to haunt Trump for a long time when his term gets over!
I mentioned earlier about what the common public thinks of these leaders. Even the staunchest opponents of Modi would not venture to label him as a clown. But, in the US, calling Trump names – “Clown” and “Joker” being popular in that is uber cool! Similarly, Trump’s earlier escapades with women have routinely surfaced in regular frequency to embarrass him. Modi has a clean record on this score.
Above all, if there is going to one lasting difference between Trump and Modi, it is going to the legacy they leave. In today’s business parlance, “Disruption” is a virtue and “Disruptors” are visionaries. However, Trump as a disruptor is likely to lead America to paying some heavy price in the future. Many of his moves though in the short term have paid dividends politically and are seemingly smart for America today, may not be, in the long term. In that sense, I reckon that the legacy he leaves may be of the disruption in the real sense. On the other hand, Modi has been very circumspect in disrupting anything. He has believed in what I call as “Improved continuum”! I believe for a country like India, his legacy may be a more positive one. From that point of view, I do feel that talking of Modi and Trump in the same breath may just be a good academic exercise and therefore “Narendra Damodardas Trump” may just be a good click bait title for a blog. Just.