Some acolytes of Indian prime minister would like to see Donald Trump as Narendra Modi of the USA. Like Modi in 2014, they would say, Trump touched the raw nerve of the US citizens in 2016 to win a decisive victory (though he polled less popular votes than Hillary Clinton). Both seized power at their national capitals though both were ranked outsiders to the national politics, they aver.
The critics of Indian prime minister point to a different kind of similarity between Trump and Modi. They say that there is, of course, a glaring similarity between Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in the USA and Narendra Modi’s ascension to the top job in India — both had polarised voters in their respective countries along religious and ethnic lines.
In the USA, Donald Trump demonised the Muslims and the immigrants and managed to win over the overwhelming majority of the White Christian population who had grown tired of the threats from the radicalised Muslim immigrants.
In India, Narendra Modi had successfully preyed upon the Congress government’s pandering to Muslims as a vote bank and succeeded in winning over a majority of the Hindu votes by his pledge to end the "pseudo-secularist" practices.
There is an element of truth in both the arguments. Modi, with his magnetic electoral campaign, won an absolute majority for his party for the first time in 2014 (no party had won an absolute majority after 1984 landslide for the Congress). Donald Trump staged a spectacular campaign to not only win the top job himself, but to ensure the unprecedented Republican majority in both the houses of the American Congress — House of Representative as well as the Senate.
But the comparison between the two ends there. Donald Trump represented a persona that symbolised anti-establishment whereas Modi was essentially an alternative proponent of the establishment.
In 2013-14, the BJP was the second largest party in national politics, next to Congress. The Congress, which was in power since 2004, had been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals and the prospect of it losing power was looming large.
The obvious beneficiary-to-be of this loss for the Congress was the BJP. Naturally, whoever was to be the mascot of the BJP’s national campaign was to be anointed the prime minister. Narendra Modi did fit the bill because he represented the core values of the BJP and its ideological custodian, the RSS.
Of course, in the national politics, he had a contender in Lal krishna Advani, the deputy prime minister in the previous BJP-led government in the centre during the 1999-2004 period. The then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had retired from politics. Vajpayee could not be resurrected as he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
But L K Advani had become a persona non grata for the BJP’s establishment (represented by the RSS) ever since he spoke those "insulting words" (to hindus) praising Mohammad Ali Jinnah's secular stance after the formation of the Pakistan state.
What Advani had said was a statement of fact; though Jinnah was instrumental in the creation of the state of Pakistan on religious (communal) grounds, he, as the governor-general of the newly created Pakistan, had sought to found a secular state once his communal agenda had fructified. But the intellectually-dwarfed cannot discern the shades of the grey; they can visualise politics only within the binary of the white and the black.
How could Advani speak a word of praise for Jinnah, "the enemy of the Indian state"?
With the RSS intervention, Advani was shown his place. He was removed as the leader of the opposition. He was virtually consigned to the history of the BJP politics. He should have known better. He had risen to the helm of the BJP politics when he was looked up as the most polarising figure — when he strode the Ram rath pledging to set up a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya after demolishing the Babri Masjid. But the moment he chose to become a more inclusive politician — deciding issues on the basis of historical facts rather than hysterical lens — he was bound to fall foul of the BJP establishment. And that is what happened.
When the RSS took the call to anoint Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate (he had replaced Advani as the most polarising figure in the BJP after the 2001 riots in Gujarat in which 3,000 Muslims died under his stewardship as chief minister of Gujarat), Advani refused to attend BJP’s National Council Meeting in June 2013 and subsequently in September 2013 in protest. But once the establishment cold-shouldered him, Advani — once the unquestioned leader of the BJP — found little support within the party. He was left to sulk; Narendra Modi became the new face of the BJP establishment long before the BJP came to power in 2014.
But Donald Trump was an outsider to the Republican establishment in the USA. Narendra Modi was a BJP chief minister of a prosperous state like Gujarat for three terms before he became the prime minister, but Donald Trump had never held any political office. When he jumped into the electoral fray in the Republican primaries, the Republican establishment elites dismissed him as a billionaire spending his ill-gotten money for fifteen minutes of national fame. Trump, however, did not suffer from name recognition deficit as he was invariably a gossip item in the mainstream media for his maverick, often notorious, ways.
What made Trump a hit with the masses was his polarising assertions — his diatribe against Muslims and other immigrants. But such divisive talk was anathema to the Republican establishment which was on the same plane with the Democratic establishment as far as inclusive politics was considered (the main difference between the two being their differing approach to the poor and the issues involving poverty).
So, the Republican establishment distanced itself from the jingoistic rhetoric of Trump, but he found resonance in the mainstream white Americans who had got tired of the clichéd inclusiveness mouthed by the entire political establishment.
There lies the crucial difference between the American and Indian political landscape — and between Trump and Modi.
Indian mainstream political discourse has always been a battle cry between two brands of politics — between inclusiveness and divisiveness; the former represented by the Congress and a host of regional parties and the latter by the BJP and a few regional outfits. Narendra Modi was a quintessential establishment face of the BJP — he symbolised the party's polarised politics by his words and actions.
So far, the mainstream American political discourse — both Democratic and Republican — prided itself in its diversity and inclusiveness; Trump decisively shifted the American goalpost and made divisive discourse the hallmark of American politics. That way, Trump truly symbolises the anti-Establishment face in the American political landscape.