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11 November 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:10am

Take it from India – this is what to expect when a far-right leader seizes power

There are some striking parallels between Donald Trump and India's Hindu nationalist Prime Minister. 

By Bhanuj kappal

I can’t help but feel like I’ve been here before – staring at CNN in my living room, smoking obsessively, cursing regularly. When an obviously shocked Wolf Blitzer, a veteran White House hack, exclaims “If Hillary Clinton has conceded, that is dramatic,” I storm out of the room in disgust. “Man, I am already feeling tired,” a foreign affairs wonk friend messages me from Berlin Tegel airport. “I haven’t even left the airport yet, I’m yelling at my phone in the arrivals lounge!” We’re all stunned, shocked, terrified even. We’ve woken up to the news that a candidate who has based his entire campaign on a politics of hate, a demagogue who was caught boasting about sexual assault, a man who can’t even be trusted to handle his own Twitter account, is now the President-elect of the United States of America. The world suddenly seems a darker, more dangerous place. But underneath that shock there runs an undercurrent of resignation, and of deja vu. Because the truth is I have been here before – in India in 2014.

This is not to say that Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, are similar individuals. There is a world of difference in their backgrounds and how they conduct themselves, as many Hindu nationalists have been at pains to point out. But it’s hard not to see the parallels between the wave of populist anger that has carried them to office. Both positioned themselves as outsiders to a metropolitan political elite that was out of touch with the rest of the country. Both promised a new era of economic growth, though they never really spelled out how they would go about it (the BJP’s election manifesto wasn’t released till the morning of the 2014 polls). Both projected themselves as “CEO-leaders” who would run the country like an efficient, profitable company.

On the darker side, the two campaigns were brazen in their deployment of Islamophobia and xenophobia. Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists”, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country and told Black Lives Matters protesters to “Go back to Africa”. Though Modi himself has largely stayed on-message with a focus on “development”, he did nothing to stop his party colleagues – including BJP president Amit Shah – from openly stoking communal fires. Of course, Modi didn’t need to establish his far-right credentials. The memory of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, when he was the state’s Chief Minister, was still fresh. And he could depend on the opposition and the liberal media to constantly remind anyone who might have forgotten.

Both openly espoused authoritarian, strongman politics, their rhetoric alarming even to the old guard of their own parties. Both benefited from public anger at a liberal establishment that could offer nothing better than the status quo. Much like the Indian National Congress, the centre-left establishment party, Clinton’s campaign thought that all it needed to do to win was to demonise Trump. That people would once again choose a liberal project that has failed most of them over the threat of fascism. They didn’t.

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The post-mortems of the US election are already rolling in, with frequent refrains of “working class anger”, “protest votes” and a “backlash against political correctness”. There is some validity to all those explanations, but they fall short of explaining why Trump won, or why the BJP’s 2014 seat tally exceeded all expectations. The truth is simpler, and scarier. People did not vote for these two men because they somehow missed the giant red warning signs screaming “Islamophobia” and “fascism”. At best, they excused the bigotry. And many, far more than we might want to acknowledge, voted in favour of it. Voters’ red lines have moved. It’s time liberals acknowledge that.

India and the USA have different histories, demographics and politics, so it would be inadvisable to draw too many comparisons between Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime and Trump’s yet-to-begin presidency. But inasmuch as they both draw from the same strain of fascist far-right politics, we can make a few educated guesses at what is to come.

The apocalypse that many liberal commentators have predicted – jackbooted thugs, midnight knocks on the door – will not come to pass, at least not immediately. This is a new, more insidious fascism, which has learned its lessons from the 20th century. Instead, expect the vile hate speech we have seen during this campaign to become normalised, to be a part of living room conversations, political debates and TV news programmes.

Indeed, the normalisation of Trump in the media has already begun, much like Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom was forgotten immediately after he was elected. Expect a surge in hate crimes against Muslims, LGBTQ and other minorities. Expect the public discourse to veer dangerously towards the right, with even centrist critiques of the government being attacked as leftist/Communist/anti-national. Expect many of your “liberal” friends, family and co-workers to come out of the closet, now that it is acceptable to air their racist, sexist and Islamophobic views in public. Expect the most belligerent, hateful, majoritarian voices on the television to gain prominence as demagoguery replaces journalism. Expect terms “liberal”, “feminist” and “journalist” to become cuss words (the two movements already share a penchant for the disgraceful epithet “presstitutes”). Expect a resurgent “patriotism” that is nothing more than veiled bigotry and an excuse for violence against those who dissent – activists, journalists, public intellectuals.

Expect attacks on your universities, so often derided as citadels of “cultural Marxism” and “political correctness”. Expect a few frivolous arrests in the name of national security and law and order, but not too many. He won’t want to spook his more middle-of-the-road supporters. Expect laxer environmental regulations, an upsurge in social conservatism, the slow whittling away of progressive gains made in social, political and legal arenas.

But most importantly, expect a long fight to protect the social contract that underpins our liberal democracies and the institutions that protect them. This is not a time to despair, as understandable as that feeling might be. It is a time to regroup, to organise, and to agitate. Hashtags and online activism will not be enough. You’ll have to hit the streets, hit the courts, stand up to the daily bigotry all around you. It will not be easy. You will lose more often than you win. You will be exhausted. But as many of Modi’s more extreme Hindu nationalist followers have realised, our countries are democracies with strong, albeit flawed, checks and balances against fascism. And while the far-right may have won this first battle, the war for your rights, your principles and your country is just beginning.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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