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An Indian Perspective on the U.S. Elections

Both democracies are challenged by social polarization and economic transition.

November 15, 2016

Both democracies are challenged by social polarization and economic transition.

A huge pall of gloom is hanging over at least half of the American people. They shake their heads in collective disbelief and are convinced that the Barbarians are not just at the gates, but will soon devour people on the inside. And all of this just because Donald Trump has been voted into office as the next U.S. President.

My fellow Indians and I, living in the world’s largest and most raucous democracy, know this feeling well. The last Indian parliamentary election held in 2014 was also one of the most surprising and seminal ones in India, perhaps just as 2016 will be for America.

India has been there before

The intensity of that election still reverberates through Indian politics today. A quick scan of major news stories on India from those days mirrors article headlines being printed across the United States right now:

▪ India’s New Voters Deserve a Better Kind of Politics (Bloomberg)

▪ India’s Election: The Next Prime Minister Is a Dangerous Man” (The New Republic)

▪ India Sees Hope in a Divisive Figure” (Washington Post)

For some time now, Indian politics has been marked by bitter polarization and a sharp decline in civility.

As in the U.S. case, Indian society has been affected by globalization in very unequal ways, while sharing very similar traits. The bulk of economic growth and new jobs of the last two years has been concentrated in real estate, finance, services and tech-dependent industries.

There has been virtually zero or minimal growth in manufacturing or agriculture-related jobs. Thus, while globalization has certainly helped increase aggregate incomes and reduce poverty, it has not reached many pockets of India.

Which is why there was such huge anger directed at Congress, the incumbent governing party in India in 2014, just as there is deep anger in the United States now.

Why Trump should love Modi, not Putin

Like Trump, Modi campaigned (and won) by relying on personal instincts and plain-speak, rather than on a sophisticated network of advisors or experts. Modi’s message was focussed on jobs and economic recovery, promising to usher in “Ache Din” (good days ahead), very similar to Trump promising to “Make America Great Again.”

There are other parallels in the improbable electoral success of both Trump and Modi. Both have been mocked by cultural and media elites who consider each of them “un-presidential” – albeit for different reasons.

Modi is perhaps even more of a social and cultural outsider for these elite circles than is Trump. Modi grew up poor and had no-English speaking education.

The infamous lampooning of Modi as a mere “chaiwala” (teaboy) by his opponents in 2014 earned him much indirect public sympathy, very similar to what the “basket of deplorables” statement by Hillary Clinton did for Donald Trump.

Insensitivity, arrogance and cronyism

The parallels between their respective support bases is also quite significant. Like Trump in 2016, Modi’s supporters do include some right-wing crazies and fringe groups. In the main, however, the bulk of his support in 2014 consisted of India’s expanding middle-class which was simply frustrated and angry at the incumbent Congress party’s insensitivity, arrogance and blatant cronyism over two successive terms.

Another important commonality between the world’s two largest democracies is that the cultural and media elites in both India and the United States have become increasingly removed from the reality of their countries. They have also become dismissive of any idea, concern or fear outside their own set of experiences.

As a result, TV studios and editorial rooms are essentially echo chambers. In India’s case, the newly-acquired celebrity power of media elites in a 24/7 world has given them a false sense of their own importance and role in policy, politics and even public morality.

In the U.S., entertainment stars like Michael Moore, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Maher or George Clooney not only routinely endorse political candidates but also get intensely engaged in all aspects of the campaign.

The new overlords

In India, too, famous movie stars, directors and authors are now increasingly weighing in on social and political issues. Emulating their U.S. counterparts, they can be found giving interviews, sitting on panel discussions and being polled on major social or political issues.

All of which is very fine, perhaps even inspiring — if done right. But what is not fine is when celebrities use their star power to preach or talk down to the “little people.”

For all these small and large similarities in the Indian and American political scenarios, Trump and Modi are also very different people in their outlook, personality and character. Thus, any parallels between their implausible success stories should not be overstated.

Belittle him at your own peril

Modi comes from a simple background. The focus of his life before politics was on personal rectitude, social service and economic austerity – of course, in the context of an almost exclusionary Hindu worldview.

Modi has managed to transition from there to the world of politics, diplomacy and economic decision-making with quite remarkable success. Even though he brings with him a reputable track record as a successful chief minister of one of India’s economically prosperous states, his worldview and his fundamental prism remain social and cultural.

Trump is perhaps the exact reverse, a man who has grown up with extreme indulgence and privilege. His emphasis is on business. The social and cultural dimension concerns him hardly at all.

Modi has no corruption stain, and even his most ardent adversaries will vouch for his personal probity, whereas Trump comes with a long history of dubious business deals and questionable ethics.

But the really crucial difference between them is this: Modi is even-tempered and calm and has successfully learned to stay unprovoked, even when under attack by political opponents or a hostile press.

Can Trump control himself?

In contrast, the evidence on Trump to date is that he is just about the most impulsive and uncontrolled leader in modern times. That is why it is not just half of all Americans who worry, but much of the rest of the world.

Given the similarity of their situation, there are a number of tips President Trump could pick up from the experience of Prime Minister Modi, both from the latter’s success and failure.

Modi’s performance so far has only reinforced the obvious truism that a good team is vital for success in any project.

Modi’s biggest failure so far is his inability to attract good talent from the outside or nurture new ones on the inside.

That is why Trump must look for the best people to serve with him in government, especially at sub-cabinet appointments and the federal agency level where the real work is done.

Having a strong team is all the more important for Trump, as he lacks Modi’s strong people’s mandate.

Build a big tent

Another lesson from India is the need for a large circle of political allies to steer legislation through parliament. Trump must even reach out to the likes of Bernie Sanders, for instance.

The two may be poles apart on social issues but they share rather similar views on global trade, jobs creation and the financial industry. Bernie will not be co-opted into any Trump cabinet – an enticing but politically impossible scenario — but they can agree to work together on common economic policy goals.

In the end, the main story about the 2016 U.S. election for those of us on the outside is not so much about the implausible Trump victory as another jolt of realization about how fundamentally America has changed over the years.

A lot has happened and altered in the United States since the 1970s. However, for all the major mutations over the last generation, the biggest one of all of them is the dominant influence which a narrow elite of entertainment superstars, technology tsars, hedge fund billionaires and media honchos have over public discourse.

While the U.S. loves to flaunt its love of “diversity” at every instance, there is also a kind of sterile conformism of opinion in elite media and academic circles.

Liberal arrogance

There is a dearth of healthy skepticism even among the American Left. It has more or less lost its old traditions of being a reflective and self-effacing group, habits that were once so essential to public life or even journalism.

Of late, American ‘liberalism” in particular seems to have been infected with a strange mix of swagger, arrogance, celebrity culture and incessant comedic lampooning. None of these traits is really useful in winning friends or arguments.

And much like Republicans of the old days, Democrats today display the same moral hubris, an abiding sense of obligation as a “leader of the free world.”

This, in turn, is leading them to use humanitarian pretexts to justify senseless interventions around the world which are not merely destabilizing but actually dangerous for the rest of us. After all, we are not lucky enough to be insulated from the world by two great oceans and two relaxed neighbors.

How would India have voted?

Whom would India have preferred, Trump or Hillary? The Indian media and foreign policy establishment would almost certainly have preferred Hillary. She is a known element among foreign policy circles and is very familiar with the geopolitical dynamics and sensitivities of this region, including the historic Kashmir issue.

Plus, Bill Clinton is considered an old friend of India, while the Clinton Foundation has partnered with many organizations and projects here. Even so, Hillary’s term as Secretary of State was not exceptionally providential for India, limited as the U.S. government is by its realpolitik constraints with Pakistan over the latter’s support in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Trump knows very little about India, nor do we know what his policies are likely to be – or even who his foreign policy advisors are likely to be. The direct personal connection with Trump is just not there.

Another training exercise

In that sense, for India the arrival of Trump means going back to dealing with a total foreign policy novice – and another anti-intellectual – like George W. Bush.

However, India believes it had a very positive association with Bush Jr. on account of the India-U.S. nuclear treaty. The hope is that Trump, who certainly is no friend of China, will be another leader willing to seek “break out” deals even outside of State Department templates and bureaucratic caution.

Trump has made all the right noises so far about support to India and to the Indian community in the United States. Based on his campaign speeches, he is also likely to be

▪ far less beholden to the petro-dollar economies
▪ far more likely to be tougher on terror and security-related issues
▪ likely to reach out to Russia and deal more firmly with China.

All of these positions align very well with Indian geopolitical aims.

In end, the strongest bond is likely to be that India and the U.S. have slowly built up strong appreciation of each other’s geopolitical priorities, sensitivities and the related trade-offs.

In equal parts by default and design, the world’s two biggest democracies, India and the United States, have already become good allies, in the sense of being on the same side of the fence on almost all major global issues.

Known entities to one another

A hugely successful and politically engaged Indian diaspora in the United States, growing defense relations and the promise of India’s rising economic potential for U.S. firms — all these are well known factors ensuring a healthy even if un-dramatic evolution of their relationship.

The U.S. government has realized India’s value as a economically resurgent, democratic and liberal ally in a most unstable region of the world. India, for its part, has long shed its elitist, British-era paranoia over American capitalism, in fact it has embraced it.

As America undergoes its inevitable political convulsions after such a bitterly contested election, it would be silly for India to deviate from a preciously gained pragmatism in dealing with the United States.


Modi promises to usher in "Ache Din" (good days ahead), similar to Trump's "Make America Great Again."

Modi has learned to stay unprovoked even when under attack by political opponents.

The US loves "diversity," but there is a sterile conformity of opinion in elite media and academic circles.

American 'liberalism" seems to have been lately infected with a strange mix of swagger, arrogance, celebrity culture.

For India, the arrival of Trump means going back to dealing with a total foreign policy novice (like G. W. Bush).

India & the US have already become good allies, being on the same side on almost all major global issues.

The US has realized India's value as an economically resurgent, democratic and liberal ally in an unstable region.

India has long shed its elitist, British-era paranoia over American capitalism -- it has embraced it.