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We walk hand in hand

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on February 28, 2020 Published on February 27, 2020

It takes two: India mirrors the US in being riven by internal discord, though with fewer challenges to authoritarian forces within civil society   -  Reuters

With his India visit, US President Donald Trump’s affinities with Prime Minister Narendra Modi have become clearer

The city of Ahmedabad offered US President Donald Trump a sanitised spectacle the day he arrived in India. Scenes of urban poverty were walled away to prevent his incurious gaze wandering that way. Delhi, meanwhile, staged a tableau of violence. Lethal acts followed provocative words by a local leader of the BJP. The dust is yet to settle, but more than 30 lie dead in the north-eastern district of the national capital.

Trump’s affinity with India’s ruling party has grown since his first Islamophobic utterances — including his embrace of a “Muslim entry ban” — on the presidential campaign trail in 2016. From his speech at Ahmedabad’s Sardar Patel Stadium, his eager Indian constituency filtered out “radical Islamic terror” as the choicest phrase. Trump has often accused his political rivals in the US of avoiding the term from a misplaced sense of political correctness.

Demonstrations may occur when a foreign dignitary sets foot in the country, but emotions rarely spill over into violence. Trump’s presence, though, seemed to embolden partisans of the ruling party in Delhi. An ultimatum to the police, to clear up demonstrators encamped in various public spaces in protest against controversial amendments to the law on citizenship, was followed by days of violence as the police, unaccountable to the elected local government, looked away.

Trump’s claim to eminence is a determined rejection of political correctness and a personalised style of rule that dispenses with established niceties. Within the US, he has declared himself “chief law enforcement officer”, principally to protect long-time cronies facing criminal prosecution. His recent interventions suggest an undue fascination for absolute power, read by most observers as a manifest threat to the rule of law.

Globally, Trump’s interventions rewrite the fundamentals that the US urged upon the world in another age. A persistent trade deficit in the new orthodoxy is evidence of the US being “ripped off”. In picking out countries such as China, Canada and Mexico and groupings such as the European Union for retribution, Trump reverses years of US insistence on a coherent book of rules for international trade.

Trump now leads a disorderly retreat from the front, repudiating the rules written at a time of virtually untrammelled US power. He sows disarray in the ranks but also rouses hope among some nations seeking regional pre-eminence in the power vacuums that ensue. But rules require enforcement, which, in turn, assumes a balance of power. Today’s wild oscillations in regional power balances bear little promise of settling into a stable pattern.

India mirrors the US in being riven by internal discord, though with fewer challenges to authoritarian forces within civil society and fewer safeguards against governmental structures being bent to the leader’s whim. Schisms within both countries have widened as their leaders have adopted a monarchical mien, identifying the good of the nation with the gratification of a personal will to power.

An element of solipsism was evident in Trump’s utterance prior to his departure from US shores, that India had treated the US unfairly though he personally liked Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Personal likes have perhaps never before been as plainly stated as an element in the formulation of official US policy.

Trump brings to fruition the right-wing counter-revolution of the ’80s. He embodies a mutant strain of the frontier individualism central to US nationalist mythology. It was a strain that lay dormant while the “New Deal”, the mass enlistment for World War II, and the years of prosperity since, ran their course. When US democracy proved incapable of fulfilling all the aspirations unleashed through the years of prosperity, it resurrected the mythology of the government as an oppressive force. The restoration of individual initiative required that government get out of peoples’ lives. The passage of four decades has transformed that ideological construct into the reality of the man who recognises no fetters to his self-aggrandisement.

Why does the system of checks and balances built up over the years now prove inadequate in restraining Trump’s caprice? The answer lies in the years of neoliberalism that consolidated traditional privileges under the cloak of market neutrality and fairness. Trump’s most vociferous support comes from the angry white middle-class male, who sees his privileges threatened by forces of demography and democracy.

The damage to the social and political fabric is a minor irritant when tax breaks secured under successive right-wing administrations are at stake, even if they have been at the cost of a burgeoning deficit and a deterioration in public services. And through his years in power, Trump has brought them the ultimate assurance of secure privileges, stacking the judiciary — the supposed bulwark against majoritarian tyranny — with right-wing nominees.

The eminent economist and social scientist Jean Dreze recently observed that the Hindutva upsurge Prime Minister Modi is orchestrating today is a “revolt of the upper castes against the egalitarian demands of democracy”. Seen in this light, the affinities with Trump become clearer and the bonding between the two emerges as a warning of dangers ahead.

 

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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Published on February 27, 2020
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