The Modi-Trump spectacle at Houston is a window to the politics of our times. Such a spectacle has its ethical dangers. But in purely political terms, it cannot be judged by our conventional categories. We can worry about whether the claims made so resoundingly by Narendra Modi and Donald Trump fit the reality on the ground. But politics is not about correspondence with truth; it is about tapping into anxieties and making people believe.
We might believe that there are red lines where international politics should not get entangled with domestic partisanship. But those conventions were blurred even in the last US election, by Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin. We might scream morality and human rights. But those have always been precarious things. Now there is such contempt for them that they are not even the currency of hypocrisy. Forget convention. Houston was about new forms of power. Modi’s immediate goal was to show the world that India stands with him; and India that the US stands with it. Pakistan was cut to size. But, beyond immediate politics, Houston was also an expression of a larger politics. What are its elements?
Modi’s political alchemy has always consisted of the fact that he does two things simultaneously. He projects leadership and resolve. But in his liturgy he also artfully stands in as the representative of the nation; he constantly produces that identification. For instance, in this narrative, the abrogation of Article 370 does not become an act of his government, it becomes the will of the Indian people which he carries. One can criticise a government. But who would dare indict the Indian people for their choices? These rallies in the overseas context make this identification between him and the nation easier.
The currency of power in modern politics does not come through sociological or economic determinism. Modi has always understood that social life is constituted by an ability to make the vicarious seem vivid and real. This is what he can do with nationalism. His gestures like speaking in different languages, his reminders that his schemes, however faulty, are directed at those who empower him reinforce his power. We can contest the facts, point the stark variance between a tottering economy and his high blown rhetoric; we can be suspicious of his invocation of diversity.
But he understands that the power of the image and the gesture far outlives the mundaneness of reality: What are the real sufferings of the few compared to vicarious thrills of the many? The abiding image of India’s power that will matter politically will not be its trade statistics. It will be the Indian prime minister leading in taking the American president’s hand and making him do a round in a homage to the power of the Indian community. We may decry this as illusory politics. But we still do not have a political vocabulary to disrupt this spectacle.
Modi is not shy of thinking of the diaspora as a possible unified force in world politics. There is a curious irony here: While so many Indians used to worry that membership in assorted transnational communities like the umma are a threat to the nation state, Hindu nationalism sees ethnicity as a fundamental transnational force, an identification that survives the partitions of nationality and citizenship. At this geopolitical juncture, there is the belief that transnational ethnic identification does not conflict with national citizenship. So, an assertive celebration of trans-ethnic identification in this form is not seen as jeopardising the claims of citizenship.
In the case of the Indian diaspora in America, this is made easier by the India-US alignment. For the last decade or so, there has been the belief that India and the US are in the following relationship: They will often have tough transactional issues to negotiate, from trade to Iran. But the fundamental dynamics of the relationship now converge to a deep alignment, especially on security and defence matters.
There is the contingent alignment in the fact that both Trump and Modi have contempt for open societies and freedom. There was something chilling about the triumphalism of the moment of an alliance against Islamic extremism, shorn of any geopolitical nuance. It signalled less a resolve to tackle a real problem effectively, and more a determination to find an enemy against whom to consolidate identity, with a crowd cheering on.
But the fundamental dynamic of the Indian relationship transcends political parties. It has grown deeper by the fact that currently there is a bipartisan consensus on the gravity of the China challenge. What the India-US bonhomie does vis-à-vis China is an open question. India’s hope has always been that alignment with the US does not close more doors with China; in fact, it leverages them open. But these waters will be tested now.
But Houston was the most spectacularly public and visible ideological affirmation of that alignment. There are no China doves left in Washington. At least in relation to the US, this gives India a lot of head room. It probably underlies the confidence that even if the rally seems to shade into a partisan endorsement of Trump, it will have no implications for relationships with the Democrats.
How will this play out in US domestic politics? That will depend on two things. India has sold the narrative that Kashmir has been in dire straits for the last 70 years. Even if there is a short-term crackdown, the long-term consequence will be much improved conditions for Kashmiris. But this promise is yet to be redeemed. All the signs are that it will not be. Second, we are probably underestimating the “Leftward” turn in American politics, especially in Congress. Unlike in India, where the Right has now produced total dominance, US politics is more deeply contested, and the negative effects of throwing a lot with a manifest endorsement of Trump are not entirely trivial.
But while these concerns are valid, the lead up to the Houston event demonstrated the one advantage, Modi and even Trump have. They are not constrained, literally, by anything. A few months ago, the press was full of their lack of personal chemistry. Now, they are ideological blood brothers.
On the economy, Modi can change policy tack with alacrity to change the narrative. That gives them the confidence that there is always a next move, a next spectacle available to them. They play politics spectacularly, in an emotion that elevates those who participate. They have sold the thrill of power and prejudice over the sweetness of freedom and openness. And at the moment we are buying it.
This article first appeared in The Indian Express with the headline Houston, we have a spectacle
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express