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Donald Trump: The Narendra Modi of America?

Two outsiders in India and the United States, each determined to tackle their country’s exhausted political establishment.

April 27, 2016

Two outsiders in India and the United States, each determined to tackle their country’s exhausted political establishment.

No one thought Narendra Modi was electable. He was loathed, treated like a pariah. He was denied a visa to travel to Western countries. His past stuck to him like a leech.

The riots which led to the death of 2,000 Muslims and hundreds of Hindus in Gujarat in 2002, in the state where he had just become the Chief Minister, stuck to his reputation like an indelible birthmark.

Members of his party could not prevent him from being chosen as the leader for the next national election. But they fervently hoped that, come election time, he would fail to win outright.

Yet, he won. Not just that. He surprised everyone by scoring a smashing victory, toppling a political clan by defeating a party that had long seemed unbeatable.

Even after two years of his being at the top, a sense of incredulity hovers over many of his former detractors. But what they dislike even more is that the crowds love him.

Modi’s journey, Trump’s journey?

There are many parallels between Narendra Modi who became India’s Prime Minister in May 2014 and Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive 2016 presidential candidate.

They are both outsiders, in terms of party establishments shunning them, as well as in their political discourse that flouts the conventions of polite debate.

Narendra Modi was running in a British-type parliamentary system. The total number of seats in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, is comparable to the U.S. House of Representatives.

No party in India had won a majority on its own since 1984. Modi was campaigning not just for his own election for the first time to the federal legislature but also counting on a majority of successful candidates of his party getting elected by hanging on his coattails.

Modi broke the record of the previous 25 years and delivered a majority for his party. Before the final results came in, even his party grandees were predicting, indeed hoping, that he would fall short of the majority – so as to be better able to handle him.

For all his oomph and dynamism, Modi was a loner, not part of the political elite. Since his election, he has managed to become the center of conversations not just at home, but in many countries abroad.

Modi ran a moderate middle of the road campaign, but he also touched the aspiration of the entire generation of young Indians by giving them hope.

Yet people who disliked him did not hear what he was saying. Instead, they tried to make hay by recalling what had happened in Gujarat back in 2002. Modi had to defeat the propaganda against him.

Anti-intellectual, anti-establishment

Donald Trump has been defying the denial of the establishment both of his party and of the liberal intelligentsia. He began his campaign by breaking every rule of permissible political discourse.

He was keen on breaking china, plenty of it. He made a point of saying everything other politicians are afraid to say openly. By speaking against Mexican immigrants, Muslims and even women, he endeared himself to voters who never thought anyone would say what they were saying. Respectable opinion was alarmed and shocked.

But as time elapsed, Donald Trump won primaries and piled up delegates. The man with plenty of money also managed to get a lot of free publicity, while his rivals had to pay for getting their names in the news.

For all the talk about a contested Republican convention, Trump is now in a position where he can legitimately demand that the Republican Party must play by the rules and let him win the nomination.

Memories of 1964

Memories of 1964 when Barry Goldwater was running for the nomination of the Republican Party come to mind. As the day of the convention approached, everyone in the party establishment gathered in San Francisco was approached to stop Goldwater.

Alternate candidates, presumably much more deserving, were created out of the hat. But Goldwater, who had won the primaries, received the nomination of his Party.

Goldwater was a shock to the American political system because he broke the cozy consensus of bipartisan politics. He said things that were unsayable.

Although Goldwater went down to defeat in the general election, he blazed the trail for Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980. American politics took a decisive turn to the right once he had introduced the themes no one else had.

Modi gained from the bankruptcy of the outgoing government. Congress Party, which ruled India for 45 years on its own and ten more years at the head of a coalition – thus altogether for 55 of the 69 years India has been independent – had simply run out of steam. Modi emerged as the answer.

Similar times

Trump also comes at a time when systemic gridlock in Washington has made progress impossible in tackling many urgent problems. The Tea Party and most Republicans loathe Obama, either for his race or for what many perceive to be his “radicalism.”

Decades of stagnation of workers’ incomes have left bipartisan politics unmoved. Globalization has benefited the corporations but not their workers.

If he wins the nomination in Cleveland and faces Clinton, it will be a contest that will see an upsurge in voter turnout. It will be a bitter campaign. Clinton will represent the consensus and Trump the dissident view.

It is anyone’s guess who will win. Just because the beautiful liberal people don’t like Trump, it is not guaranteed that he will lose.


No one thought pariah Narendra Modi was electable and then he won. Will Trump win too?

Just because the beautiful liberal people don't like Trump, it is not guaranteed that he will lose.

Narendra Modi's critics disliked him so much they didn't listen as his message resonated. So too with Trump.