A billboard set up for Donald Trump’s visit to India this week read: “World’s oldest democracy meets world’s largest democracy.” In the meetings between Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, democracy was hardly on the agenda. The two had other priorities: mutual self-congratulation, multibillion-dollar arms deals, tacit approval of anti-Muslim violence, and Bollywood-style spectacle. The centerpiece of Trump’s trip was a much-hyped event dubbed “Namaste Trump” at a massive cricket stadium in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Modi’s bonhomie with US presidents predates Trump. Obama also cozied up to India’s leader, similarly touting the countries’ supposedly shared democratic values. Obama was happy to look the other way regarding Modi’s alleged complicity in anti-Muslim riots; for the Obama-Trump dialogue, free trade was the only freedom that counted.
But the Trump-Modi relationship brings the lovefest of US-India leadership to a new high. No longer just a neoliberal alliance, Trump and Modi have cemented a bond over machismo-infused right-wing nationalism. The ideological affinity was evident at the “Howdy, Modi” rally in Texas last year, which served as a mirror image of the Gujarat event, and which saw Trump receive his biggest applause lines when condemning “radical Islamic terror.” Trump replayed his greatest hits at the recent Gujarat event, again getting the loudest cheers in response to his tough-on-terror posturing.
The coverage of the cricket stadium rally in the New York Times and other mainstream news outlets seemed content to mock Trump’s exaggerations (his claim that 10 million people would attend the rally) and blunders (his trouble pronouncing Indian names). Another Times article suggested that the apparent goodwill between the two leaders hides “a pricklier reality” because the two have not been able to reach an agreement on a planned trade deal — one that Trump promises will be “very, very major.”
But neither world leader seems particularly concerned with signing a trade pact; they were happy enough to shake hands on a $3 billion arms deal (which Bernie Sanders was quick to criticize). Both Trump and Modi enjoy acting tough during their trade negotiations with each other, though even the Times itself recognizes that this posturing has had little economic impact.
Coverage of the event, then, suggests it was empty spectacle, a facade to mask failed trade talks. But this is the wrong conclusion to draw. The spectacle was precisely the point. The Times may treat it as boorish Trump bluster, but we should be genuinely worried when nationalist leaders with deep authoritarian tendencies gather huge crowds in stadiums and draw the loudest cheers when the national enemy is invoked.
Even before Trump landed in India, it was clear that the Hindu nationalism Modi embodies was not a mere show. On the evening of Sunday, February 23, Kapil Mishra, a local leader from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), threatened protesters in Delhi, who have been peacefully occupying street corners and public spaces in opposition to a new citizenship law that openly discriminates against Muslims. The demonstrations have been ongoing since last December, a surprisingly strong pushback to a Modi regime that had otherwise seemed invulnerable.
Shortly after Mishra’s remark, violence broke out around several protest sites in Delhi, which continued for several days, leading to dozens of deaths. The international press has described the attacks as “clashes” between Muslim protesters and Hindu counter-protesters, creating the impression of an even fight between two rival groups. On-the-ground reporting suggests a different story. One headline sums it up: “Three days of violent attacks in Delhi could not take place without state sanction.” Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship have been targeted, and attackers are confident that they have the support of the state. Disturbing videos have circulated of police beating up Muslim protesters and forcing them to chant the national anthem. A BJP leader has been marching through the streets, unapologetically calling for violence. And Hindu rioters have been bragging to journalists, as we see in headlines like “Hindutva Men Talk About the Violence They Unleashed” and “Hindu supremacist mobs orchestrate violence against Muslims where BJP won in Delhi elections.”
As the last title suggests, the bloodshed is occurring in the aftermath of the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, in which the BJP was crushed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a relatively new party that emerged out of anti-corruption protests. The BJP’s campaign strategy was one of religious polarization, portraying Delhi’s protesters as anti-national Muslims and baiting AAP to defend the protesters. AAP steadfastly refused to oblige, focusing instead on its accomplishments improving education, health care, and basic infrastructure in the city. In the end, AAP won in a landslide, taking sixty-two of seventy seats. The violence of the past few days has been concentrated in areas where the BJP prevailed.
In trying to make sense of the seeming disconnect between the BJP’s electoral drubbing and its swaggering violence on the streets, it is useful to return to earlier reflections on the rise of Hindutva nationalism, especially those written after the destruction of a mosque called Babri Masjid in 1992. This spectacularly violent attack in many ways ushered in the current phase of Hindu nationalism, marking it as a strong national force with a mass base, even though the BJP was defeated in several state elections after the event. As the Marxian scholar Aijaz Ahmad noted at the time, the BJP can suffer electoral losses while Hindutva forces nonetheless go “from strength to strength as much in cadre-building as in the building of a national cultural consensus so that countless individuals who vote for other parties actually come to adopt the whole of the [Hindu nationalist] world-view.” There is certainly ample evidence of this in the unfolding events in Delhi.
Ahmad issued a further warning that remains relevant today: “In contemporary India [anti-Muslim] communalism is certainly… the cutting edge for a fascist project as a whole, but … other violences — of caste, class, and gender — are always there to form the kind of authoritarian personality upon which the fascist project eventually rests.”
This is the kind of authoritarian personality, of course, that Trump too cultivates in himself and his supporters. Unsurprisingly, when asked about the violence in Delhi, Trump dismissed the concerns of reporters, saying Modi had worked “really hard” to promote religious freedom. Trump’s sympathy with fascist projects is hardly a secret, and his rise too has depended on violences – of race, class, and gender, one could say, paraphrasing Ahmad. If there is any hope for the world’s largest democracy and its oldest democracy, it means confronting these violences head-on, at the electoral level, on the streets, and in much broader projects of transformation.