After the recent meeting between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, we would all be well advised to pause and reflect about these two men, so similar and yet so different. Both our countries have elected controversial populist strongmen who rode a wave of public anger to great and, to many, alarming, power. As scholars who study political systems both descriptively and normatively, we have long thought that cross-country comparisons yield insight. Donald Trump and Narendra Modi exemplify different types of the populist strong-man leader, with different potential consequences for democracy’s future.
Trump and Modi both rose to power as the result of popular rage against longstanding political elites. Corruption, insider politicking, and common people’s perceived lack of access to power were prominent themes in both campaigns. Both campaigns fed, as well, on the real distress of the have-nots in our respective societies.
In India, the promise of equal empowerment through education and employment has not been fulfilled by successive governments ruling at the Centre over many decades. Modi promised a faster economy and more jobs, although he hasn’t delivered on either. The failure of his one big policy initiative in three years — demonetisation — damaged the economy, making it more difficult to deliver on his development promises.
In the US, lower middle-class men, especially, have seen their incomes stagnate and their health status plummet. While the US is currently at full employment, the jobs that are available require more education than this class has been able to attain, and their children probably won’t be able to afford it, given the rapidly escalating costs of university education. Despite these real problems, Trump squeaked in through the electoral college, losing the popular vote, while Modi won by a landslide.
Trump is vigorously opposed by both Democrats and many members of his own party, who have prevented him from enacting any major policy initiative so far, while Modi’s opposition remains in disarray. The Opposition rarely confronts the government over beef lynching, cow slaughter, love jihad and anti-Romeo squads, obviously for fear of offending Hindu sentiment. Unlike the US situation, mass opposition to the Modi regime is yet to materialise even three years after the establishment of saffron dominance.
Trump and Modi appear drawn to a hard line against radical Islam, which was reiterated in the joint statement after the Trump-Modi meeting in Washington on June 26. Both are anti-intellectual and abhor criticism. Both have indulged corporate elites in various ways.
In India, there is a disturbing determination to polarise opinion around hyper-nationalism for vote-catching reasons. Opponents are dismissed as anti-national. In fact, any criticism of the government is deemed anti-national. Both leaders have contempt for mainstream media and both rely on social media for publicity and image management.
However, unlike the American media, the Indian media are in nationalist overdrive, portraying themselves as watchdogs of the Opposition rather than the government.
Trump and Modi exemplify two different types of the populist leader: What we might call the Narcissist and the Ideologue. Trump is a textbook case of narcissism. Everything is all about him. Almost every tweet and certainly every speech proclaims that what he is, or has, or does, is the Biggest, the Best, the Most Fantastic. Like most narcissists, Trump appears to have severe difficulty working with others on terms of reciprocity and respect. He turns on people, hiring and then firing.
Trump has regular tantrums; he can’t control his constant flow of often petulant and vulgar words. When he thinks he is not lauded enough, he insults anyone and everyone: Judges, politicians of parties, journalists, women, trusted leaders of allied nations. His boundless thirst for approval makes him happier on the campaign trail than actually crafting and implementing policy. He has done very little indeed, despite controlling both houses of Congress, in part because of his difficulty working with others, in part because of his short attention span where real policy matters are concerned.
Most important, narcissists have no stable policies. Trump wants praise above all, so he is prepared to veer, often wildly. Elected largely by the lower middle class, he has governed in favour of wealthy elites who have his ear. His positions flip-flop unpredictably — on Israel (he simply dropped the idea of relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem, a major campaign promise), on China (his campaign promise, soon forgotten, was to punish China on trade), on climate change (he campaigned on the view that it was a hoax, but now says it is real), on gay rights (formerly favouring them, he has increasingly veered to the right in order to retain the support of his base).
On health care, his positions shift unpredictably from day to day, so that Congress increasingly ignores him. Indeed we can go further: Trump sees the world as a child sees it — as a set of personal friends and personal enemies. His Middle East policy follows his longstanding friendship with Saudi royalty, and therefore assails Qatar without knowing much about the enormous complexities of such a stance.
Contrast Trump with Modi — one of India’s most powerful politicians in decades. He is a consummate politician who has been chief minister of Gujarat for three terms. Modi’s career has been an embrace of RSS ideology, including its idea of a Hindu rashtra in which Muslims and Christians are, at best, second-class citizens. Whatever his precise role was in the Gujarat communal violence, it was not a noble one, and it deserved the decision of the US State Department to deny him a visa for religious discrimination. Yet, he has convinced many Indians that he can make India great after six decades of no development (as he claims). He has persuaded the lower middle classes that he is on their side even if his policies hurt them dearly as demonetisation did. The middle classes see him as a leader who thinks and speaks like them; they see the government as serving Hindu self-interest.
In keeping with his long association with the RSS, Modi is disciplined and works to a plan. He has patience and a long attention span. He does appear to enjoy adulation, but not in the manner of the narcissist: He doesn’t let it turn him away from his ideological programme. Modi does not veer; he encroaches. He is working for a radical transformation of India so that it becomes a strong Hindu nation. A permissive climate of hate and retributive violence has been cultivated to achieve this. The concerted strategy of turning Hindus against Muslims doesn’t stop with elections. In fact, it has escalated after each election. First cow slaughter, and now buffalo trade is the target to shore up the “Hindu vote”. Both the narcissist and the ideologue pose threats to democracy.
From Trump one can fear an international crisis caused by whim or stupidity. One can worry about assaults on freedoms of press and speech. There is also the danger of getting nothing done, when the nation has large problems to solve. But, given Trump’s policy preferences, getting nothing done is probably good for America.
The danger posed by the ideologue stems from the fact that total electoral dominance becomes the sole goal of the democratic project. Worryingly, Modi has also encouraged a cult of personality — which is creating a template for the growth of authoritarian tendencies. The very idea of a democracy in which all citizens possess equal rights irrespective of caste, class or faith, is under threat from a majoritarian ideology.