The unlikely camaraderie of a tycoon and the son of a tea-seller
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned a favour done to him by President Donald Trump a year ago when the latter attended a rally, held in Modi’s honour by his Indian-American acolytes in Houston.
The rally -- attended by about 50,000 people -- was called Howdy Modi, Texan style. Trump, who had seen rallies only of his core supporters, was thrilled because this rally also cheered him like his sycophants.
Modi was so grateful for Trump’s attendance that he promised Trump a much bigger rally 20 times bigger in his own hometown Ahmedabad. Trump, an ardent lover of big rallies that he only dreams of, was thrilled at this prospect.
So, he came to Ahmedabad in his quest for a big rally which a grateful Modi called Namaste Trump. Why not? After all, they are two peas in a pod.
Trump’s visit to India, for that matter Ahmedabad, served the two leaders’ egos much more than their respective countries. For Trump, who had just gone through a long impeachment process during which he painted himself as a victim of Democratic Party and Deep State conspiracy, wanted to demonstrate to his loyalists how he is loved by foreign leaders and foreign countries.
Modi wanted, on the other hand, to show his people how close he was to the President of the most powerful country in the world despite worldwide criticism of his repressive policy toward Kashmir and anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act.
Trump basked in the sunshine of the accolades from an assembly of BJP loyalists -- giddy from watching a US President in their slum dominated town. Modi smacked his lips in his success in hugging Trump many times over and thumbing his nose at his critics, home and abroad.
With Trump standing next to him -- shoulder to shoulder (never mind if Modi was many inches shorter) Modi trumpeted to the world that with Trump around, he could not care less what his critics say about his policies. Donald Trump is the answer.
And true to Modi’s prayers, Trump did turn out to say what a grateful guest would say to his gracious host, no matter what the host had done to his people. Trump was not to side with his international or domestic critics on his abrogation of Kashmiri people’s rights, or for denying Muslims their rights to become citizens of India.
Trump would not even comment on the communal riots that would claim many lives (majority Muslims) the same evening when he was being feted in Delhi. He brushed these aside as India’s internal matter, something Modi would handle.
Trump went even a step beyond to praise Modi for his sincerity in promoting religious equality but refused to comment on the CAA that has infuriated not only India’s 200 million Muslims, but a number of Indian states.
So, what do we make of this bromance between the two leaders who could not be more apart from each, both in background and experience?
Unlike Trump, a billionaire who was born with a silver spoon in the mouth and never was much of a politician, Modi was born in the slums and spent his childhood working with his tea stall-owning father.
But unlike Trump, Modi learned politics from his teens and grew up from the ranks to become a leader of his party. What is it that is attracting Trump to Modi?
For starters, both Modi and Trump are populists who have shot into fame by pandering to a base that felt leaderless or at least led by feckless leaders.
For Trump, this base is whites, mostly conservatives, who have become fearful of losing their political strength to the growing number of immigrants, and increase in liberal politics that Trump denigrates.
For Modi, the base is Hindu nationalists who earlier existed under the banners of radical groups such as RSS, Jana Sangha (the political arm of RSS of which Modi was a member), Shiv Sena, etc.
BJP, that grew out of Jana Sangh, amalgamated the disparate Hindu nationalist elements and became a major political force under the leadership of Atal Behari Bajpayee and LK Advani.
Narendra Modi gradually ascended to that leadership after his accession as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Although his tenure was darkened by one of the biggest communal riots in Gujarat where nearly 1,000 Muslim lives were lost, his loyalists credited his major economic development and development policies in Gujarat, a reputation that catapulted him to his success in the 2014 general elections leading to his prime ministership.
But their other uniting factor is their public perception as Islamophobes. In his presidential campaign, Trump had called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US, which he later followed as president with an executive order to ban immigration of people from six Muslim-majority countries (which he somewhat diluted by the addition of two other non-Muslim countries).
Modi’s Islamophobia was less from rhetoric but from his deeds. Critics have put the entire blame of Gujarat riots on his reluctance to take actions to stem the riots, just as they do for his enactment of the CAA that facilitates citizenship to applicants of all religions from three neighbouring countries except Muslims.
Therefore, it is a slap on the back for Modi when Trump praises him for his efforts to promote religious equality.
But, is this Trump-Modi “bromance” only a tool of political convenience for both? For Modi, it may be more than convenient to demonstrate to his internal audience his connection with the president to boost his political base and appeal to Indians.
But this may be transient as US-India bilateral relationship is above and beyond the fawning of Trump by Modi.
Relationships between two countries, whether trade or defense, are not determined by the US president alone. These are ratified by a Congress that is not exactly enamoured of Trump right now (at least not the House of Representatives, and nearly half of the Senate).
On Trump’s side, the adulation that he received from a Modi crowd in India will not substitute the challenges that he will face in the upcoming elections.
With more than half the country poised against him at every step, and with a popularity level lower than most past presidents, Trump has an uncertain future for his presidency.
So, the Trump card that Modi has shown may not be a safe bet for him to salvage him politically in the coming years. He will need better cards than Trump.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.