The political psychology that lies behind ‘Namaste Trump’

Thomas Sajan/Titto Idicula | Updated on February 26, 2020 Published on February 26, 2020

While Narendra Modi’s global statesmanship has earned him admiration at home, it is the feeling of nationalism that Donald Trump evokes which makes him popular among Indians in the US

Never before has an American President visited India in such a grand and extraordinary manner. Timely, extravagant, and flamboyantly reported in the media, the ‘Namaste Trump’ event at Ahmedabad was in many ways a public diplomacy counterpart of the preceding ‘Howdy Modi’ episode at Houston in the US.

The explicit electoral undertones of the event — particularly the fact that US President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election, eyes at the 2.4 million Indian-American voter base through its loyalty for Narendra Modi — is already up in the air. But beyond the apparent truth of the event as a well-timed electoral gimmick, the political psychology of the masses that support it needs a deeper introspection.

Dynamic Modi

Bizarre spectacles like Namaste Trump and Howdy Modi are used by the BJP’s top brass to showcase the capability of the Prime Minister’s global leadership and statesmanship. Efforts were already being made to utilise the Howdy Modi event to reaffirm Modi’s charisma and highlight his appeal and impact around the world.

“Swami Vivekanandji had gone to Chicago and we have been talking about it ever since. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had gone to Germany and shook hands with Hitler. But this time, not only were there handshakes, but the protocol was broken, and it was a proud feeling when our Prime Minister spoke and the US’ Trump listened. This is a tribute to Mother India”, said BJP leader OP Dhankar during the campaign for Haryana Assembly elections last year.

Since the imagery of foreign domination is deeply rooted in the Indian psyche, a large majority of the Indians are likely to applaud a Prime Minister who appears to bring the American President to his terms. The authors’ experience from rural India, following the Howdy Modi event, suggests that Modi is widely perceived as someone who ‘conquered’ the West by his charismatic personality and oratory skills. It is rather baffling to discover how those villagers, who are undoubtedly among the world’s poorest, admire their ‘Chaiwala-turned PM’ as a man who could upstage the world’s most powerful White man — and not because they believe he used his leverage to improve their lot.

A rickshaw-puller from Jharkhand said that Modi is “even greater than Swami Vivekananda as he mesmerised Trump with our language”. It’s worth noting here that despite having good conversational English, Modi prefers to speak in Hindi when meeting foreign dignitaries — a conscious departure from India’s archetypal English-speaking, elitist national leaders.

The appeal towards Trump

At the other end of the spectrum are an entirely different class of Indians that President Trump tries to woo — the Indian-Americans, who constitute the second-largest group of immigrant voters after Mexicans. What makes them more important for Trump, however, is not just the numbers involved, it is also the power of their purse: the community has a median household income almost double that of White American households.

Though traditionally a strong support group of the Democratic Party, many Indian-Americans have started inclining towards the Republican side, despite the vehement anti-immigration policies of the present-day administration. As a prosperous group, many of their financial interests are not hurt by the economic policies of the Right-wing regime. As a New York-based Indian oncologist notes: “I cannot blame Trump if I make my opinions purely based on the pay-cheque I receive”, despite disliking Trump and what he stands for.

Can such an ambitious group, which chases the ‘American dream` so successfully while maintaining its Indian identity, be wooed by the far-right politics of Trump? Paradoxically, the answer is yes.

Politically, what unites the Indian-Americans with Trump is Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments. The open hostility of Trump towards Muslims is something many of them can relate to. The feelings towards a ‘common enemy’ gave birth to a certain kind of nationalism, one that needs to be consolidated by an Indian leader. There can’t be a better person for the job than Modi, who projects himself as the epitome of a patriotic Indian, paving the path for mega political events both in the US and India.

What is surprising here is the huge contrast between the admirers of the win-win relationship between Modi and Trump: the most privileged Indians on the planet – NRIs living in the US — and the most underprivileged Indians living in the country’s villages and poor suburbs.

Sajan is a social anthropologist trained in Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and a fellow of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

Published on February 26, 2020
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