Many believe that United States President Donald Trump would get along rather well with Hindutva supporters in India, given their preference for authoritarian diktats over democratic dissent. One little-known Hindutva outfit makes this affinity quite explicit by holding a puja every year on Trump’s birthday. Last week, Trump waded into yet another debate that is likely to win him plenty of friends in India: criticising people who refuse to stand during the national anthem as a gesture of protest.

Naturally, the American president did it in the most Trumpian way possible, with foul language and a Twitter storm. Speaking at a rally on Friday, Trump offered his opinion on players in American sports leagues who are choosing to kneel during the singing of the US national anthem to draw attention to alleged police brutality against people of colour.

Colin Kaepernick, a player in the National Football League, had chosen to kneel during the singing of the anthem before a game in 2016, saying “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”. His decision sparked a controversy, prompting many to denounce his act as being anti-American, while others have chosen to join in and do as Kaepernick did.

Shots fired

At the rally, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now... he is fired.’” The sentiments Trump was expressing, and his foul language, prompted the commissioner of the League, Roger Goodell, to say that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect”. The National Football League Players Association also condemned Trump’s comments.

On Friday, Stephen Curry, a championship-winning basketball player, was asked if he would want to make the ceremonial visit to the White House that is customary for all sports teams that win their leagues. Curry said he would not. “By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country, what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to,” he told the press.

Trump, of course, had to respond.

Trump’s comments have prompted an outpouring of support for protesting sportspersons like Kaepernick from athletes across the spectrum, with many supporting the right to protest the anthem, even if they do not agree with it. Some went further, saying that Trump was simply doing this as a sign to his white supremacist base since he seems to only criticise non-white players exercising their right to expression, not the mostly white owners of sports teams who he acknowledges are his friends.

India and America

The controversy differs from similar discussions in India over the last few years in important ways. In India, a Supreme Court order in November for the national anthem to be played in cinema halls before every film screening led to several instances of people being told to leave the country, attacked and even arrested for not standing up. Post-Cold War America does not have a convenient “enemy” and so rather than a “Go to Pakistan” equivalent, Trump’s response is to channel his television avatar and call for the players to be fired. Indian laws are also a little more ambiguous than American codes, which clearly state that people are expected to stand and face the US flag, if there is one, during the playing of the anthem.

Yet, the contours of the debate are the same, in that both rake up a debate about patriotism and act as a dog-whistle to discuss who really belongs in the country. In India, in fact, it has gone even further, where the country’s national song – which does not figure in the Constitution and is not mandatory – has nevertheless been used as a sign of patriotism, even though some have expressed religious objections to it. As in the US, where Trump seems to be playing to his white supremacist base, invocations of the need for people to sing Vande Mataram in India are usually used to claim that Muslims who object to it do not belong in the country.

Some commentators, while acknowledging the dog-whistling portions of these debates, also pointed out how there may be other reasons for leaders like Trump and India’s Hindu Right to rake them up. When a government is unable to achieve much, whether it is steering the economy or having to pass legislation despite being entirely in control of the legislature, which leader would not turn up the chance to change the subject towards a conversation where his opponents are made to seem anti-national?