In 1947, the puppet show Howdy Doody popularized the phrase “peanut gallery” for the TV age. Originally a vaudeville term, the “peanut gallery” referred to the cheap seats, from which dissatisfied audience members could throw peanuts at bad performers. Howdy Doody softened the term, using it to describe the live studio audience of children who generally cheered and followed the instructions of the show’s host. The peanut gallery would sing the Howdy Doody theme song, as well as commercial jingles for the show’s sponsors, including Colgate and Wonder Bread.
In 2019, just a few days ago in fact, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi played a starring role in “Howdy, Modi,” a rally that attracted tens of thousands to the Houston Texans’ football stadium. Perhaps the organizers, a group called the Texas India Forum, were not consciously referring to the puppet when they came up with their name, but the crowd they assembled was a peanut gallery in the mildest, most welcoming Howdy Doody sense — cheering for Modi, bursting into applause, and repeating his name over and over.
Modi, with his muscular projection of Indian nationalism, is popular with large segments of the Indian diaspora. That diaspora has been one of the major funders of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the interconnected set of Hindu nationalist organizations that have supported the BJP’s rise, particularly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In the Indian elections earlier this year, which put the BJP back in power with an increased majority, the Indian diaspora played a major role in fundraising and promoting Modi. The Houston rally was a continuation of the mutual love fest between the prime minister and his diasporic fans.
The crowd also cheered for the other guest of honor, Donald Trump, who for once accepted a supporting role on the stage. Despite significant trade tensions between India and the United States, the two leaders are united in their authoritarian postures, their exclusionary nationalisms, and their villainization of Islam. Modi generally presents his nationalism in a more suave way — some Modi supporters bristle at comparisons with the boorish Trump and his bald racism — but last weekend’s event made clear the symbiosis of their visions. Trump’s biggest applause line came when he called India an ally in the fight against “radical Islamic terror.” The two left the stage hand in hand, literally and metaphorically.
If you find something ominous about huge crowds feverishly cheering their nationalist leader, you’re not the only one. The real peanut gallery, in the vaudevillian sense of the term, was outside the stadium protesting Modi’s appearance, holding signs and chanting slogans like: “Houston, we have a problem. It’s Modi” and “RSS is KKK. RSS, Go away!” Organized by the Alliance for Justice and Accountability, a coalition of Indian-American activists, the protests also received support from groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Black Lives Matter. Protesters were especially critical of the way Trump and Modi trumpeted their commitment to democracy even as Modi’s government brutally cracks down on Kashmir, curtailing the region’s already-limited autonomy.
The Houston event, just like the old Howdy Doody show, was made possible by its corporate sponsors: in this case, not Wonder Bread and Colgate, but Walmart, which continues its long, tortuous attempt to enter the India market; OYO Homes & Hotels, an international hospitality company founded in India with significant financial support from venture capitalist/Trump supporter Peter Thiel; and Tellurian, a natural gas company that recently struck a deal with an Indian public sector energy company, under Modi’s watchful eye. The first thing Modi did in Houston, the day before attending the rally, was meet with energy executives from Tellurian, ExxonMobile, and fifteen other global energy companies.
The intertwining of business meetings and nationalist rallies should come as no surprise. Like many right-wing parties, the BJP has fused a religiously oriented mass base with a capitalist class of funders. Modi’s home state, Gujarat, where he served as chief minister from 2001 to 2014, was a model of this fusion. This required adjustment on both sides: Hindutva groups like the RSS backed down on their preference for tariffs over free trade, while some economic elites swallowed their distaste for the more vulgar and violent aspects of Hindutva. Lately, though, the marriage has been a bit rocky. Industry leaders have started to complain as India faces major economic troubles. (Astute observers on the Left saw this coming — the BJP was making economic promises it couldn’t keep, confusing blind faith in economic “reform” with the structural conditions of the Indian economy.)
So if there are strains in the capitalist-Hindutva alliance, who will emerge with the upper hand? Or, to push the “Howdy Doody” analogy: if the Houston rally was named after a puppet show, who is pulling the strings of power in India today? The answer depends in part on how one interprets the crackdown in Kashmir. Business leaders, including prominent ones from Modi’s home state, have applauded the move, noting that Kashmir would now be “open for development.” Some on the Indian left saw this as a sure sign of conspiracy — Modi again acting at the behest of his corporate masters.
But this may misjudge the dynamics of the current ruling bloc. Modi’s RSS roots are much deeper than his neoliberal ones, and Kashmir has long been on the RSS agenda. Its semi-autonomy, beleaguered as it was, still poked a hole in the RSS ideal of India as a unified Hindu nation. And economic compulsion cannot explain the cruelty of the crackdown: the communication blackout, which has led to a public health emergency; the arbitrary arrests of civic leaders; the blinding of protesters with pellet guns.
The everyday workings of capitalism are grotesque enough — just witness Modi blithely meeting oil executives during a week of global climate strikes, a few weeks after appearing on Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls to promote India’s commitment to the environment. But the government’s actions in Kashmir — and their wild popularity with some sections of the global Indian diaspora — suggest something even darker. It is not just capitalism that spills beyond traditional borders and seeks to create the world in its own image; authoritarianism does so too. Despite its nationalism, the Indian right has been eager to accept money, support, and adulation from those outside its borders, whether from Hindu Americans or from Trump. As the forces of reaction internationalize, so too must our resistance.