Trump and Modi's bromance is real — and what's scary is what the president might be learning

Amar Diwakar
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty

On Monday in Ahmedabad, president Donald Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s largest cricket stadium, jointly addressing an audience of 125,000 jubilant Indians.

It was the first stop on Trump’s maiden diplomatic two-day visit to India, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Certainly, there are few places in the world where Trump can enjoy the sort of rock-star reception, replete with folk dancers and Bollywood singers, that India afforded him.

The event, billed as “Namaste Trump”, was a nod to the “Howdy Modi” spectacle rolled out for Modi last fall in Houston. Both stocky strongmen exchanged embraces and rhetorical flourishes, as Trump painfully contorted his way through snippets of Hindi and the names of hallowed figures from Sachin Tendulkar to Swami Vivekananda.

Trump received the pageantry befitting an autocrat whose ego is bound up with crowd sizes. Modi and his fabled “56-inch chest” can summon up throngs at the scale that would make Trump blush.

Trump has long expounded over his fraternal relationship with Modi. Indeed, there’s much that Trump must admire – and perhaps is envious of – when he takes a look at how his Indian ruling counterpart operates.

Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in 2014, Modi and his regime have presided over a steady erosion of the institutional and ideological foundations of the Indian secular republic to realize the political horizon of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where minorities are second-class citizens, if not cleansed from the body politic altogether.

Modi, like Trump, channeled populist rage and majoritarian resentment by directing ire upon a corrupt “globalist” establishment, and branding himself as a pro-growth economic reformer and anti-red tape crusader.

Trump’s nativist “America First” policy is matched by the BJP’s autarkic “Make in India” drive. Ironically, at the heart of the ongoing economic strain between the two is that Modi is too protectionist for Trump’s ostensibly mercantilist sensibilities.

Trump’s pro-Wall Street administration is underpinned by corporatism and fueled by white identity politics. Meanwhile, jobless growth and crony capitalism define Modi’s stewardship over the economy, as popular anxiety has been ensnared by a virulent Hindu identity politics. During Modi’s first term, this played out in the form of mob-led cow vigilante violence, that primarily targeted Muslims in grisly public lynchings.

The culture of impunity is unparalleled. While Trump surrounds himself with a revolving door of unsavory figures and controversially pardoned those like Michael Milken (and might extend clemency to Roger Stone), Modi counts amongst his political cadre Amit Shah, the Indian home minister who has escaped murder and kidnapping charges, and Yogi Adityanath, a bigoted monk and current chief minister of the country’s most populous state.

After the BJP secured a second term in May last year, the gloves came off.

While Trump’s Muslim ban and anti-immigration measures had to bypass Congress, Shah managed to push the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a chilling anti-Muslim citizenship law, through the Indian Parliament. He also revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, which has endured the longest internet shutdown recorded in any democratic country along with widespread detentions and ongoing human rights abuses.

The BJP has also primed the country for a National Register of Citizens drive before 2024, aimed at identifying and removing illegal immigrants in what is essentially a bureaucratic cleansing initiative. Detention centers that could rival China’s are being built for those eventually displaced and rendered stateless, in what could end up being the largest disenfranchisement drive in history.

In response to widespread anti-CAA protests, the government’s crackdown has been unrelenting. Systematic targeting of university students and Muslims by police brutality and far-right thuggery has wrought an escalating climate of violence across India’s streets.

Disinformation campaigns were critical digital components in both Trump’s and Modi’s electoral victories. But the scourge of fake news has ravaged India’s public discourse to the extent where it has been weaponized by those in power to devastating effect.

One of the most stunning developments is how the Indian press has cravenly bent the knee, pumping out government propaganda and acting as Modi’s jingoistic press secretary. Journalists are threatened, dissent is gagged. Trump on the other hand is regularly lambasted by the US media, with even occasional pushback from Fox News.

Fascism ultimately ends with one-party rule over the state’s legal, institutional and ideological apparatuses. A cult of personality that harnesses nostalgia for a mythical past in service of national renewal is very much part of an old playbook that Modi and Trump have benefited from.

The difference is that Modi is comfortably – and terrifyingly – ahead of the pack of ascendant far-right regimes strewn across the international arena. Under his reign, Indian democracy has degenerated into a brutish theocracy that draws upon vast reserves of anger, social sadism and hyper-masculine worship of power.

Yet, what appears to be the Trumpification of India, to be sure, precedes Trump. Rather, the “New India” might be what Pankaj Mishra calls “Trump’s spiritual home”.