This is an op-ed draft I put together over the summer, but my timing was way off (I wrote it after Modi went to DC), I sent it one place where it didn’t get picked up, and then I forgot about it and it sat on my hard drive. I haven’t changed any of it since June, but I thought it was at least kind of interesting, so here it is:
What the Trump-Modi Comparison Misses
Both the left and right have equated Donald Trump with Narendra Modi: the former attacking them as majoritarian populists who have risen to power on the back of bigotry and fear, the latter heralding them as plainspoken, hard-charging nationalists elected in a cultural, economic, and political rebuke to left-leaning establishments. Modi’s recent visit to Washington brought these analyses front and center.
The comparison has some merit – but it obscures as much as it reveals. Modi and Trump do share a demeanor and an appeal: they claim to speak for a forgotten, marginalized majority who have been undermined by an amorphous but sinister blend of corruption, lack of patriotism, and economic incompetence. In America, it is the urban political and intellectual class and unworthy immigrants and minorities who stand in the way of the virtuous, silent majority; for Modi, it is the Congress and “pseudo-secular” elite and the various suspicious social groupings who have held India back. Both are skilled politicians who revel in overcoming the contempt of the intelligentsia.
This much is correct, and important. Yet the nature of the projects they lead and the political coalitions they drawn upon differ importantly, in ways that are essential for understanding each leader’s prospects for success.
A first key difference is ideological. While anti-globalist White House advisor Steve Bannon and members of the Hindu right might thrill to the idea of Modi and Trump together taking on effete cosmopolitans and seditious Muslims, Trump represents more of an attitude than an ideological project. His positions oscillate wildly, his policies lack direction, and he has been singularly unable to pursue a distinctively “Trumpist” political direction. Thus far, the particular combination Trump promised of economic protectionism, an expansive welfare state for his support base, and a radical realignment of politics has simply not borne fruit. Trump appears to have consistent beliefs on crime, trade, and immigration, but for much of his life he has been a Democrat or independent, without any political career as a Republican.
Modi is, by contrast, a deeply ideological leader with long-standing, formative experiences in the RSS and BJP. The Hindu nationalist movement has articulated a clear project for decades: one that centers Hindus and Hinduism as central to the Indian nation. Modi is steeped in that tradition and his party continues to pursue it, even while simultaneously mobilizing around other issues, like governance and development. Too many analysts have ignored this core project, distracted by Modi’s political skill at presenting different faces to different audiences. But it provides the sense of disciplined mission so characteristic of the Hindu nationalist movement, one that is utterly lacking in America’s president. Whether one likes Modi or not, it is clear what project he represents and in what direction he will take his government.
Second, the political coalitions that brought each leader to power are quite different. There is a similarity: both drew substantial support from both wealthy and poor within a majority demographic (Hindus for Modi, whites for Trump). But the age and geography of their support are not remotely similar. Trump’s greatest appeal is not to aspirational youth or rising urban middle classes, but instead to older rural and suburban voters who fear the loss of their power, status, and prosperity. Trump ran as a counterrevolutionary who would return America to its glory days; Modi instead promised a revolution that would shake the political foundations of India. These are fundamentally different electoral bases looking for different things, even if both find majoritarian nationalism appealing. Indeed, the very class that is stereotypically linked to Modi in India – young, economically ambitious urbanites – is vehemently and deeply anti-Trump in America. Age and geography politically split America in ways that simply are not present in India.
The parties that Trump and Modi lead are also very different. Many Republicans are loyal to Trump, and the vast majority willing to work with him in pursuit of shared goals like Supreme Court nominations and tax cuts, but he has not been able to impose his will on the party. He is not particularly feared or respected by many Republicans, who instead respond to their own constituencies and congressional leadership. This may change over time, and it is surreal to see how many Republicans have been willing to make excuses for Trump. Despite this unsavory bargain, the Republican party is not an ideologically Trumpist party managed from the White House. The lack of major legislation coming out of Congress, despite Republican majorities in both the Senate and House, speaks to the deep problems Trump faces with his own party.
Modi has sidelined many of his rivals within the BJP and pushed his reach deep into a number of important state units. Even in the face of resistance, he has personalized the BJP around his leadership. This does not mean he and Amit Shah totally control all aspects of the BJP, of course, and they remain reliant on complex alliance calculations. But the BJP is far more clearly linked to, and driven by, Modi than Trump and the Republicans. This is no surprise: Modi rose over decades from within the RSS and BJP, rather than entering politics as an outsider. The BJP’s traditional cadre structure and its deep links to the RSS and Sangh Parivar provide organization, cohesion, and social reach that Trump simply cannot draw upon. Modi also has a far surer control of the state apparatus than Trump, who has been beset by institutional checks, internal leaks, and, above all, his own incompetence.
This combination means that Modi’s nationalist project is more formidable and sustainable than Trump’s: he draws on a more robust party, a deeper ideological mooring, and a coalition of increasingly prosperous urban classes with substantial resources. Trump is dangerously inept, erratic, and lacking in basic judgment. This makes the prospect of a war or crisis profoundly alarming. But he is unlikely to succeed in advancing a distinctively Trumpian agenda through the mobilization of a disciplined party animated by his own policy goals. Instead, he has, thus far at least, been a crude but useful battering ram used to advance traditional Republican objectives: slicing the welfare state, reducing taxes, and pursuing social conservatism.
This does not mean that there are not important similarities: majoritarianism binds the two leaders. But there remain key differences that will likely take their political fates in very different directions. This suggests that, for all the media interest in the Trump-Modi relationship, US-India ties do not hinge on a disinterested and undisciplined Trump. Instead, the America-India relationship is likely to continue as it has since 2000, with Trump or without him.