Both United States of America and India are witnessing a seemingly invincible ascendancy of right-wing populism. Both the countries are being run by charismatic demagogues and are reeling under a spell of majoritarian backlash. The society in both the nations is now clearly polarized and the right-wing forces have managed to create an atmosphere of distrust against ‘elites’ and ‘outsiders’ amongst the ‘peoples’. The climate of doubt, tribal hatred is rampant in both the countries. There may be some local variations but delegitimization of traditional institutions of knowledge and expertise is on the rise in the two great democracies of the world. Media in both the countries have seen rise of right-leaning media houses. Attacks on minorities have achieved a new acceptability in India as well as the United States. It will be fascinating to examine the similarities and the differences in the current right-wing populist movement in the two countries.
In the United States, right-wing has traditionally been represented by conservatism and its most important institutional manifestation has been the Republican Party. Key tenets of the American conservatism have been small government, literal interpretation of the constitution, more role for the community in taking care of the downtrodden than the government, general tendency to preserve the traditional structures and gradual rather than sudden change wherever unavoidable. It must be noted that traditionally, Republicans were not seen opposed to civil rights or immigration. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Traditional South was kept in a racial time warp by ‘Dixiecrats’ Democrats bent on keeping the exploitative social structure of the southern USA intact. The Republican Party was active participant in the Civil Rights movement of sixties. However, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater presidency bid and Nixon’s Southern Strategy made Republican Party a party of religious, southerner whites with a very conservative stance on welfare, racial issues and immigration. This somewhat solid traditionalist party started undergoing change in post Reagan period and with the arrival of Newt Gingrich the strident right started taking shape. Arrival of a Black President in Barrack Hussain Obama jolted the somewhat dormant majority. Aided by the insecurities of economic meltdown, Tea Party conservatism made many latent militant aspects of the Grand Old Party mainstream. Stage was set for some adept skilful exploiter of the country’s fault lines to take the situation to the next level. In comes, Donald Trump giving life to the resentment, anger and hatred better than anyone. Traditional Republican leadership which acted as gatekeeper for crass populism was swept aside by the resurgent base-supported newcomer. America entered the Era of right-wing populism in full earnest in 2016.
In India, unlike Democratic and Republican parties of the US, there has been no comparable liberal-conservative dichotomy. Congress, for the most part, starting from the freedom struggle days, acted as an umbrella party. It subsumed diverse ideological orientations. Only visible challenge was from Left parties. Conservatism, in a much repressed way was active in the form of Swatantra Party, Arya Samaj, and Congress leaders like Raja ji, Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Shyamaprasad Mukherjee among others. The virulent identitarian right-wing of Hindu Mahasabha or Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was confined to side-lines due to Congress supremacy and the backlash against Gandhi assassination by a member of the movement. It took extensive network and political entrepreneurship by RSS and leaders like Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, Vajpayee, Advani, and Narendra Modi to achieve what earlier luminaries of the right like Savarkar and Golwalkar could only imagine. This massive rise was caused and aided by the resounding implosion of the left-liberals. Congress which was the torch bearer of inclusive liberalism started becoming autocratic as is clear by the imposition of emergency by Indira Gandhi and meek surrender to dynastic leadership. Factions and, more worryingly, questionable and opportunistic lip-service to secularism and welfare of the downtrodden led to a noticeable change of character of the Congress Party. It also started losing its policy vigour as a remote-controlled high command culture replaced a robust regional and decentralized structure. Policy-paralysis of second UPA regime gave political entrepreneurs of the right the much awaited opening and juggernaut of Narendra Modi with very skilled utilization of tropes of right-wing populism overran the political landscape of the country. To be fair, it was a massive democratic mandate.
Indian right-wing populism is manufactured
Unlike the US, Indian right-wing was on the side-lines for the most of the post-independence period. In the US, right-wing in its conservative form with less strident identitarian hues was always mainstream. In such a scenario, Indian upsurge of the right-wing populism can be seen more as a skilful manipulation of political forces by the leaders than the US variant which is more reflective of a very clear social anxiety and a civilzational strand of America. Herein, lies the difference between the authority of the leaders and, as some would say, the culpability of the leaders.
Both India and the US are home to massive demographic diversity but majority-minority equation in the two countries is different. America will enter into majority-minority status as for the first time in the nation’s history, non-Hispanic whites will no longer make up a majority of the population by 2045. Immigration and rise of non-whites have given rise to a genuine sense of loss of power among the rural, less educated whites and they are Trump’s base. In India, on the other hand, religious majority face no such immediate challenge. Their share of population, despite much trumpeted ‘higher’ birth rates of the minority group, is unlikely to be dented in any foreseeable future. Immigration, despite bogey of illegal Muslim immigrants, is not even a shadow of immigration levels in counties like USA. Naturally, it fell on the political entrepreneurship of the right-wing in India to amplify and hone these insecurities, a task inadequately handled by pre-Modi BJP leadership. A proven master of discord was brought to the scene to up the ante to a level where dominance through polarization and hatred became central tool of politics.
Master or servant of the ecosystem ?
Like Trump, Modi also took charge of a party which was ripe for extremist takeover. He was invited by the insiders of BJP (chorus of second rung of leaders led by Arun Jaitley and supported by Rajnath Singh) as a charismatic outsider. Trump too is an outsider to the traditional conservatism of America. Ominously, invitation to charismatic outsider by established insiders has a chequered history. Examples like Germany (Hitler), Italy (Mussolini) or Venezuela (Chavez) tell their own story. But Modi is qualitatively different commodity from his US counterpart. Trump surprised the Conservative leadership with his historical but sudden takeover of the presidential race. He came to the scene and found the climate unexpectedly conducive for his brand of subversive politics. He had no experience as administrator and was a true wild card. Modi on the other hand, was one of the most popular as well as controversial politician of the party and the country when he was tapped by the central leadership of BJP. He had earned reputation as bold and seasoned administrator and was seen as a great communicator. He was duly invited to take the BJP across the threshold of dominance. After this point, Modi’s supremacy was his own doing. He stamped the party with his autocratic style and elevated his man-Friday Amit Shah to number two position. His personality driven leadership style and his condensed electoral appeal made the party totally dependent on his charisma. He relegated seniors to the oblivion of Margdarshak Mandal and cut the second rung to the size. Currently, truly speaking, it is difficult to find an electorally useful leader in BJP apart from Modi. Most of the members of his Council of Ministers owe their political existence to him. Trump was propped up by his ecosystem of angry base and right-wing media empire, whereas, Modi, to a much greater degree a creation of his talent. He refined and gave life to a relatively dormant base of Indian right-wing sympathizers.
If right-wing ecosystem of supporter base and media is a tiger, Trump is riding at the mercy of the tiger. Modi on the other hand, is the ring master of his circus. Trump can’t deviate from the script that is prepared by his rural white voters and Fox News led right-wing media system of the United States. Modi on the other hand, controls his ecosystem. Both supporting media and support base is in follower mode. Modi has enough political capital so far to steer them in any direction. Having said that, perhaps even Modi won’t like to test this by going soft on issues (like needling of minority) dear to his core supporters. Still, compared to Trump, Modi is in much more commanding position vis a vis his support base.
Quieter but more lethal
Trump has shown total and uncouth disregard for traditions and norms of his office. He has not betrayed any ambition to appear statesman-like and has bid goodbye to even personal decorum. Lies, altercation and outright inappropriate behaviour is common to the most powerful elected leader on earth, who should have remained a realtor and second rung TV celebrity. Modi however, has pretensions of being a statesman and has usually restrained from buffoonery of Trumpian proportions. Compared to Trump’s brazen disregard for truth, his sobriquet of ‘fenku’ appears ill earned. He serves the right-wing by being accomplice and enabler. His silence allows an increasingly rowdy group of former fringe hotheads to play storm troopers. He is a divisive presence, an enabler and symbol. He aids and abets the right-wing extremism by his silence rather than participation. Under his watch and conspicuous indifference lynching became mainstream, minorities came under naked attack, institutions like media and judiciary were brow-beaten and public sphere turned toxic. Trump for all his polarizing pranks is a comparatively benign presence, fighting openly , comically and pathetically with what he considers enemy. In India it is more adept, silent and deadly leadership. Trump is nowhere in the vicinity of ‘rajdharma’ lapses for which the Indian Prime Minister has been blamed for.
US has mounted a more valiant fight-back
Response to the right-wing populism has been very different in the two countries. The mandate itself is indicative. Trump lost the popular vote and won through electoral college whereas Modi achieved stupendous feat of complete majority, twice, in a polity where coalition governments were the norm. American system and traditions have created an informed citizenry. The depth of liberalism has led to a much robust response against right-wing despite much more serious polarization of the two-party polity. Academia, media, art and culture, general citizens have kept up a relentless protest after initial shock and mourning against Trump. Trump and his followers are also giving it back in full measure. Despite rising discord and division, guardrails of American democracy has ensured that there is no fear among minorities and liberals of being physically harmed, stray violence against the blacks notwithstanding. If Fox News and the elk are finding the new atmosphere lucrative, liberal papers like New York Times are prospering on their liberal credentials. Howsoever, combatively or garrulously but the US President is still facing media and media is giving it back in equal measure. Journalists and their media owners are not worried about ED raids or physical attacks. A part of electronic media recognized the formula of TRP in a polarized environment, rest cowered in the face of pressure and denial of access and patronage. The situation is somewhat similar to what existed during Emergency for which Advani famously said about Media, “you were asked to bend, you instead crawled’. Presently, a vocal and aggressive majoritarian group has managed to silence much of the progressive voices. In America, may be, open supporter of right-wing and liberals would be equal in numbers but in India due to diversity and fragmentation even a relatively smaller number has claimed the majority space.
As two embattled democracies tackle the menace of right-wing populism a stark reality is hitting home. A similar play book of demarcation of an ‘other’, hatred for ‘elite’ and exploitation of the fault lines of the society by unscrupulous demagogues is being played out in both the countries. The surreal disregard of facts and expertise has created a post-truth society. However, while in USA ,the rise has some foundation in the changing demography and some real evidence-based threat to the supremacy of the majority, it is more artificially orchestrated in India. With no real threat to the majority in India, the crisis is deliberately manufactured to a greater degree. Whereas, the US ethos sanctions a conservative outlook in tenets like individualism-backed aversion for welfare policies, meritocracy, social and family values, open enterprise and bias for small government; Indian ethos is not suited for the right-wing given the non-dogmatic nature of Hinduism as religion, spirituality infused indifference to worldly reality, a philosophy of kindness, tolerance and brotherhood (vasudhaiv kutumbkam) being dominant postulates of Indian psyche. Still Indian right-wing is proving to be more aggressive and deadly than the US one. Herein lies the success of the Indian right-wing.