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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Modi-Trump conundrum: Hindu revivalist, American carpetbagger

American historian Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize winner from Columbia University. His area of specialty is the Reconstruction, the rebuilding of the American south after the Civil War.

Sensing money-making opportunities in the Confederacy of the so-called "slave states" that lay prostrate in 1865 after the four-year Civil War, many soldiers of fortune made their way south.

They swept through the defeated states buying up assets and parlaying them into fortunes.

Named after the cheap baggage they carried, these "carpetbaggers" were reviled as vultures, come to feast off the decay of the South.

That’s what Donald Trump is: a carpetbagger come to grab at the remains of the Republican Party.

Reeling from assaults by an assortment of increasingly extreme right-wing groups that began to flourish during the administration of George "Dubya" Bush, the party fell down an ideological mineshaft.

Pulled in many directions by neocons, evangelists, white supremacists, soldiers of fortune, gun nuts, religious bigots, the party seemed to lose its bearings.

Jockeyed by loose associations like the Tea Party: a grab bag of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-corporate, anti-bank, anti-welfare, anti-tax, anti-government isolationists… anyone with a pet peeve, the GOP seemed to jettison its traditional conservative agenda of lower taxes, national security and fiscal rectitude in favour of divisive social nostrums such as abortion, school prayer, gun control, immigration.

From this miasma emerged Donald Trump to claim his prize: the presidency of the United States that includes not just the most powerful financial system in the world and the world’s greatest military machine with global projection capabilities, but more important, the most destructive nuclear arsenal known to mankind.

Like India’s Narendra Modi, Trump is an unrestrained megalomaniac; he says the most egregious things but nobody knows what he stands for except showmanship.

Like Modi, Trump seems willing to embrace the most egregious forms of bigotry, something America is not used to and India is finding hard to deal with.

Modi already controls the resources of a trillion-dollar economy, the world’s largest armed forces and a nuclear weapons stockpile of which little is known whether of its size, its technological sophistication, its chain of command.

In that sense, he is way ahead of Trump.

For those of us who have been shocked and awed by the rise of Modi, it appears depressingly possible that Trump could win the election in November this year.

Modi springs from a revivalist Hindu cult and has raised bigotry to a winning election manifesto.

A narrow worldview bred by prejudice against Marx, Muslims and Macaulayites, his bigoted agenda, Hindutva, was asserted by denigrating opponents and then weaving a fantastic web of deception about El Dorado, aka achhe din.

The origins of Trump, according to recent revelations, can be traced to the wide-open frontier ways of his German-born grandfather, a saloon keeper, who celebrated guns, booze, debauchery and devil take the hindmost.

The grandson’s candidacy has been powered by his own wealth, both inherited over three generations and accumulated in his lifetime.

His financial success represents the most unsavoury strand of capitalism that combines avarice, violence and a belief that poverty is a mark of personal failure.

Modi and Trump share qualities that define the word redneck: a visceral hatred for an establishment they seek not to crash but destroy; a lack of aesthetics including clothes and churlish public behaviour; an overt appeal to violence and hate.

And yet, neither Modi, despite his chaiwalla deception, nor Trump springs from poverty; they both emerged from the margins of social class and project without much finesse that they are victims of relative deprivation.

There is one crucial difference between the two.

Trump emerged from the decline of the mainstream Republican Party that began with Richard Nixon on down through Reagan and the two Bushes. He simply seized the opportunity, carpetbagger style, to catapult himself into the reckoning.

Like it or not, he mocked the Republicans, I am your party nominee by acclamation from the white detritus, the kind of people you wouldn’t admit to your country clubs or the towers I built for you; the kind of people who thronged my grandfather’s Seattle saloons at the turn of the 19th century.

Completely unnerved, the Republican establishment finds itself without a cogent response to Trump’s extreme and ever-changing manifesto but especially to his sweeping primary wins.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works ye Mighty and despair," Trump seems to mock them.

For his part, Modi also cocked a snook at India’s established liberal democracy. India is a Hindu nation, was his claim in the 2014 election.
He attacked and denigrated the Congress Party, the mainstay of the UPA coalition government that gave India ten years of unprecedented growth and a new spirit of inclusion.

Using innuendo and lies, Modi succeeded in his shock-and-awe campaign portraying the Congress as a corrupt, anti-Hindu force that perpetuated poverty and neglected infrastructure.

It was an amazing act of chutzpah that enabled his party to win an absolute majority in Parliament with just 31 per cent of the popular vote.

Just as Trump had a free ride in the primaries, raining curses and indignities on the journalists, Modi has enjoyed a two-year stint unquestioned by media.

Like Trump, he has kept journalists at arm’s length: no interviews, no press conferences; only one-way communications: government press releases, radio addresses, tweets and social media posts. And there was, of course, the interview with Arnab Goswami.

Now it is beginning to catch up, this brazen lack of accountability. The social media, in which he reigned unchallenged, have now become channels of opposition and ridicule.

Also, new digital alternatives have emerged to the mainstream media: influential news portals, widely circulated blogs in the digital editions of mainstream newspapers and television channels and numerous other outlets to reach audiences by the million.

Trump evaded hard questions in the primaries because his rallies frequently were overwhelmed by violence between supporters and opponents.

He nevertheless used the platform to denigrate his opponents as people who did not want to "make America great again", a dog whistle appeal to racists, misogynists, the sullen white trash in their survivalist camps and costumed meetings.

It remains to be seen if Trump can handle post-primary national scrutiny in the same scruffy way. India’s Modi will also find it difficult to repeat his sucker punch campaign in 2019.

Comeuppance looms on the horizon for both the American carpetbagger and the Hindu revivalist.

(An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, July 16, 2016.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Will Modi stop marching to the beat of his own drum?

Narendra Modi's Africa sojourn is sinking like a stone. With his penchant for wardrobe gaffesplus his inability to shake off the "suit-boot sarkar" image, Modi's safari has become an object of criticism and more important, ridicule in the media, traditional as well as digital.

Consider the following:
1. His intriguing trip to Mozambique was billed as the first by an Indian prime minister in 30 years. No verification of that claim is available on the website of the ministry of external affairs. In the event, various media outlets ran stories outlining the interests of the Adani group in that country.

The Janata Dal (United) was quick off the block, charging the decision to import pulses would benefit mostly Adani's port operations. Clearly, the "suit-boot sarkar" descriptor has stuck. Modi is finding it is hard to shake off, as hard perhaps as the persistent  questions about his r0le in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

2. Continuing his embrace of sartorial extravagance, Modi appeared at a function in South Africa wearing a version of the "Madiba shirt," made famous by Nelson Mandela, among the tallest leaders in the world, right up there with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

It became a major trend on social media, compelling even the traditional media to take notice of the derision it evoked. It revived the memory of the monogrammed-pinstripe suit he wore to a meeting with US President Barack Obama. He is now seen as a rube.

3. Modi also went to Pietermaritzburg, symbolically by train. It was here that Gandhi underwent a transformation after being thrown out of a train in May 1896. His inclusion of this in public remarks caused widespread outrage, given his umbilical links to the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organisation that was responsible for the Mahatma's assassination.

4. His visit to Durban's Phoenix Farm, where Gandhi developed the Satyagraha concept, drew an immediate response from Tushar Gandhi, his great grandson: "I feel violated."

5. As if that wasn't bad enough, Modi trolls pitched in with a tweet that had two pictures: one of Modi and another of Manmohan Singh in South Africa.

The picture with Modi was black and white, showing him alone; the Singh photo was in color and included his wife and several officials. It's not clear what was intended but it backfired when the Modi picture was photoshopped with a ghostly picture of Ishrat Jahan sitting behind him. Jahan was the young girl killed in fake encounter by Gujarat police while Modi was chief minister.

1. In Kenya, he told a youth audience to be wary of hate preachers in an obvious reference to the fuss his acolytes in the media are making over the preacher Zakir Naik. The digital space was immediately overwhelmed:

"Modi didn't name any particular person or ideology in his speech. And Naik is far from the only preacher of hate in the country.Indeed there are many closer to home, whom Modi has much more control over. Never mind the prime minister's own speeches soon after the Gujarat riots, members of his party and its larger parivar almost take "preacher of hate" to be a vocation... here are people in Modi's own council of ministers that could easily be accused of 'threatening the fabric of our society' through hate and violence," said one commentator.

Clearly, Modi has been overwhelmed. The BJP'sfabled "media management" skills have failed miserably in the social media. It is true that that Lalitgate, Vyapam and others incidents of government bungling and criminality have disappeared off the screens and pages of the traditional media.

But they are alive and kicking in digital world. In fact, one of the most remarkable turnarounds since the government assumed office has been its denouement in digital media.

This space was hitherto monopolised by the BJP and its "tech-savvy" cadres, who used these channels to vilify opponents and spread Modi propaganda about the "Gujarat model;" achche din; maximum governance, minimum government; rooting out corruption; bringing black money back from overseas stashes and what not.

The disillusionment began with Modi's no-holds-barred speeches before NRI audiences.

"Earlier you felt ashamed you were born Indian," he said in Shanghai in May 2015, adding gratuitously, "There was a time when people used to say we don't know what sins we committed in our past life that we were born in India. What kind of country is this, what kind of government is this, what kind of people this country has. There was a time when people used to leave, businessmen used to say we can't do business here. These people are ready to come back. The mood has changed."

Appalled by his comments, Indians took to social media to trash his remarks. He repeated the performance in Seoul, South Korea. The hash tag, #ModiInsultsIndia, trended through May and June of last year.

Before that, in September the previous year, some critical voices questioned the triumphal nature of his rally in New York's Madison Square Garden but were swept away in the wave of adulation that followed.

For instance, a clearly spellbound journalist, who writes for The Times of India from Washington, was over the moon.

With no pretence of objectivity, he prattled, "India came of age in the United States with an epic show of political, social and economic clout, and cohesion…Chants of "Bharat Mata ki Jai: and "Modi, Modi, Modi" rocked the... arena that has witnessed many a great sporting battle and entertainment show, but nothing like this event…the 18,000-plus audience erupted in joy and pride in a show of strength that will almost certainly be factored into US perception of India, now and forever."

It has been downhill from that outburst of hyperbole. Modi's most recent trip to the US was not only mocked but serious questions were raised about the deals he brokered; the undercurrent of the criticism suggesting they gave him baubles: an impressive White House reception and an address to a specially convened joint session of Congress and he agreed to a flawed agreement on the purchase of nuclear power plants from Westinghouse.

Earlier in France, he got a haute welcome so he would sign a lucrative one-sided contract with Dassault Aviation to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets, which boosted the company's export sales by more than 2,000 percent.

Disillusioned by Modi's consistent indulgence in hype, the bulk of informed opinion has begun to ask questions. Thus, his ongoing trip to Africa has already been overshadowed by ridicule and criticism.

The more hype he generates in response to growing scepticism, the faster it will be converted to cynicism. And that is a death knell in the snake oil business.

 (An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, July 12, 2016.)