An identical target audience, an obvious majoritarian bend, fear-mongering a common tool, copybook tokenism towards minorities overflowing with condescension, an intentional jingoistic national fervor, and the result: A Gemini-like twosome, political twins blowing identical horns.
I speak of two very different personalities – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump.
As Modi completes two years in office, across three oceans Trump has reached the magic number – support from 1,237 delegates. And unless the Republican Party stages a coup at its convention, he will be the Republican presidential candidate for the upcoming polls in the United States. What began as a humorous sideshow in the US primaries has ended up being the most shocking or pleasing (depending on which side of the fence you sit on) development. Closer home, in Bharat, the Bharatiya Janata Party has converted its government’s second anniversary into one of the most extensive and expensive PR campaigns we have seen.
So different, yet alike
As individuals, there is nothing that brings the Republican outsider and the Hindutva insider together. Modi belongs to the Other Backward Classes; he comes from a poor background, an untiring hard worker, who joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which trained him brilliantly in cultural-politics. This ambitious young man used all the opportunities he got to become a mass leader of India’s Hindu majority. Here is the classic, political rags-to-riches story – a tea vendor transforming into a national figure. The final step, his anointment as India’s Prime Minister, made him the single most powerful symbol of this nation.
Trump’s pedigree is diametrically opposite. Born with a golden spoon in his mouth, Trump has always associated with the famous and powerful, and boasts of little real political experience. Yet he stands within inches of becoming the 45th president of the United States of America.
As personalities too, they seem to have very little in common. Modi is a seasoned politician, shrewd, tactical, unfazed, clear, measured and ideologically grounded. You will never find him overtly displaying power. He is acutely aware of every word he utters, and those that he consciously leaves out. Trump seems careless with his comments, there is no clarity regarding what he wants to do, he is brash, uncouth, flaunts his wealth, carries an “I care a damn” attitude on his sleeve, and shows very little care in general.
And yet, Modi and Trump stand twinned. They are both, by their natural chemistry, crown people – one has determinedly got to wearing it, the other has angled his head to its rim. Both of them have triggered in their respective societies support from similar vote banks. The middle and upper middle class conservative, Christian white community has come out lock, stock and barrel to cheer Trump along. In India, the middle and upper middle class, conservative Hindu, largely OBC and forward caste community voted Modi into power, and continue to be his largest base. In both these cases there is a consolidation of a specific section of society – of course, its largest section.
A buried anger
But what we need to watch is the tone in this political surge. This cheering community in general is displaying a great deal of bitterness, anger and frustration towards every other group whose affinity can range from mildly conservative to the ultra-left.
Its members feel strongly that they have not been cared for and are blamed for all of society’s problems, and that the others (read minorities) always benefit at their expense. They do think that their freedom to express themselves has been largely curtailed, since society is unwilling to accept them as they are.
What is deeply worrisome is the texture of this sudden awakening. We are witnessing extremely volatile, abusive socio-political activity from this specific section of our societies. And let me be categorical: this is not about thoughtless screaming.
Even the so-called intellectual arguments emanating from politicians, religious leaders and academicians are primarily hostile, old right wing postures that use selective historical recounting for substantiation. But the difference now is that many people are listening, finding them convincing and are reacting positively. The general feeling is: “We have been quiet for too long. Now our time has come, let us show it to them.”
There is one specific idea that is tied in closely to this, and this is ultra-nationalism. The middle class conservative majority around the world strongly believes that it is the moral and cultural soul of their nation, and that the present downturn that society is going through is a result of the suppression of their class. Both Trump and Modi have tapped into this dangerous thought and are cashing in.
When the present dispensation in India, on an daily basis, tries to portray the last 60-odd years of freedom as a disaster that needs to be wiped out from our memories, one may wonder whether we were under the brutal Khmer Rouge all this while.
But many do share this perception of disaster and see Modi as the messiah. Trump hasn’t got there as yet, but he is tapping into the same sentiment, the glorious white-dominated Christian past versus the concession ridden pro-minority present. What works even more for him is the fact that many have holed up deep inside a grudge that a black man occupied the White House for eight years. Though Trump’s lifestyle has been anything but traditional, it does not bother his supporters. Somewhere he has struck a chord, and to put it bluntly, angry bigots are coming out of the closet.
Time for introspection
But, we have to ask, is there truth to the feeling that is shared by the conservative majority in both societies? Have they been unfairly targeted? There is a lot missing in this discussion from both sides.
There is very little introspection by the conservative middle class over their role in society. There has to be a realisation that piety and religiosity do not give people natural goodness, as much as being a communist does not make you obstructionist and violent.
Learning about society beyond one’s little circle or putting oneself in another’s shoes does not seem to happen easily in this world. This group wants to stay far away from the poor and minorities since they are seen as pitiful. And they definitely do not want to be like the upper classes since they are cultureless vulgarities. Nevertheless they are secretly envied. The larger construction of people’s problems really does not reach this section. They are trapped, sandwiched and strongly believe that they are the ideal.
This is such a complex suppressed, aggressive, victim-superiority syndrome. The conservative middle and upper middle class do not recognise their own cultural religious power, which exists even today. They gloss over it, describing its nobody-ness in political and economic terms.
On the other-side, left-liberal-secular activists, socialists and the politically cosmopolitan have no real understanding of the conservative middle class, never really conversing with them. Even the most liberal social activists rarely use the culture of this section as part of their work. They are always seen as culturally oppressive. We can always dig up the past and find a lot of muck, but doing only that does not help anyone. How can we enable a community to see beyond its own self and recognise that beauty everywhere must be treated with equality and not just acceptance? And how can cultural conservatism be used to enable social connections, even if it means creating a problematic discourse.
Political reformists have never really addressed these issues. Either you are an un-yielding conservative, or you have to be like us. So I point fingers at you and take away something that you control, or I reject and discard all that you stand for.
This bipolar view has damaged society and crippled everyone’s thought process. And what is even worse is that the powerful among minorities and repressed sections behave like the conservative middle and upper middle classes once they have made it. This only further reaffirms their sense of cultural superiority.
The problem we face today is real. Modi and Trump have kindled all those suppressed feelings and, even worse, are now symbolising them. The conservative middle-class now believes that society will be far better under these leaders because more people will become like them. The scarier fact is that the extreme right the world over is gaining power, making the need for socio-cultural intersections not just vital but urgent. Time is running out.