My Voice - 2019


Tale of Two Democracies

By Anand Kothari

Two democracies, India is the largest and United States the oldest and the most powerful, draw remarkable parallels. The two leaders of the respective countries carry nationalist views and often take on unconventional paths to fulfill their election pledges. Both leaders came to power from two ends of the spectrum but with a strong motivation to deliver what their predecessors who were seasoned politicians failed to deliver in prior decades.

President Trump and Prime Minister Modi often are in a love-hate relationship. The media appetite was saturated by the political “bromance" of two leaders at a huge rally in Houston recently where both leaders tried their best to help each other via their own loyal base. Both are seen driving similar agendas - jobs, tight immigration policies and so on. So my attempt here is to share apparent differences as to how and what they do.

Freedom of Press:

Both seem to avoid or dislike freedom of press. Well, not quite true. Modi has a highly sophisticated and dedicated apparatus to keep the PR campaign, sometimes he's alleged to spin one side of the story or withhold information. On the other hand, Trump continues to disdain all media outlets, other than Fox, that are relentlessly dissecting his (poor) choice of words and opinions to demonize nearly the entire journalistic community. The onslaught by labeling most of the news outlets, national and international, as 'fake' has raised questions of authentic journalism and demoralized the press corps. Trump questions the integrity of the press and fails to leverage the power of the mighty pen to enhance his image in the history as a promoter of democratic values. This is where Modi seems to have an edge over Trump. Modi has impressed foreign media equally through building the image of India as an emerging power. He never alienated or questioned the legitimacy of the press, but instead used a constant barrage of positivity to attract attention.

Appeal to the Base:

As far as the strength of their bases, Trump won by a remarkably slim majority through the strategic garnering of electoral votes. Modi on the other hand, proved his massive election wins in 2014 and again in 2019, by wide margins. Modi never questioned the election process while Trump, despite the win, pointed at errors in the polling. He often evokes fear to draw attention as with the “invasion from the southern border" and “China stealing jobs." His narrative is heard by the general public in two starkly contrasting ways, which speaks to the polarization of America's politics. Unsurprisingly, Trump continues to enjoy the same level of support he had in the past because he has a loyal base. He has done little to sway anyone outside of his base to change their opinion about him. So if he wins again, it will only prove that the opponent is weaker and more politically incompetent. He has not left many faithful people in the inner circle including his communications staff to explain his moves and rhetoric.

Modi and his surrogates include journalists/talk-show hosts, popular spiritual leaders, corporate leaders and even Bollywood celebrities who continue to praise Modi's agenda. This has built the larger-than-the-life persona where Modi is seen as the party and the chief cheerleader for more than a billion people. People vote his party for him, mostly ignoring the actual candidates. He receives a rock-star welcome in the most unlikely places while visiting foreign countries. Thousands thronged Madison Square Garden and Central Park in NYC to Wembley Stadium in London and Allphones Arena in Sydney as he brought NRIs in the same fold as the millions of voters back home soon after he won the election in 2014. And most recently in Houston at the “Howdy Modi" rally which attracted a 50,000 strong crowd. He uses his charisma and the humble beginning of his life to embrace the masses.

International Relations:

Both leaders have a nationalistic agenda which is commonly termed as right-wing policies. Trump's rhetoric about “America First" has alienated the USA from the world scene. With tariffs and foreign aid as a negotiating tool, US has shared barbed wire with India on limiting H-1 visa and a hardline against skill-based immigration. Not solely because of his posturing, but also by creating fault-lines with allies like Germany, Korea and France. International relationships that took generations to build are now on a shaky ground. Modi, on the other hand, continues to make strategic whirlwind tours across the continents ever since he became the Prime Minister. He garnered support from his counterparts from Asian and European countries. Modi has been touting greater good ( Vasudhaiv kutumb kum – the whole world is a family) and eco-friendly policies as a platform rather than only pursuing self-interest. He has leveraged his power of negotiations and diplomacy to further development. Modi does not shy from calling Putin, Trump, Netanyahu or Xi Ping a close friend within days apart. Trump takes pride in him with the art-of-dealing and his negotiation skills as his forte but he is yet to yield any meaningful agreements with any country. He is seen as a global bully in pushing his own mantra, by supporting more right-wing leaders in Europe and elsewhere, rather than propagating conventional democratic values.

The issue of Hispanic migrants in the US and Bangladeshi migrants in India also draws interesting similarities. Both leaders are pretty firm with their stance to expose the illegal status and keep them out of giving them constitutional franchise. The emboldened Modi could be seen successfully dodging external pressure as a result of the recent actions on Kashmir. Many see this as a testament of how a successful leader would build the larger support base before taking such controversial actions. Modi prepared very wisely to insulate the issue from being even discussed at the international stage. This is where two leaders concur by labeling it as an internal issue.

So, despite many similarities in how these two leaders handle their day to day affairs, the mark in history each will leave will be significantly different. The world will remember who brought in an inclusive growth while leveraging the potential strengths of the populations these leaders were elected to serve. The politics of divisiveness, ignoring the basic human values and using fear instead of progressive policies to further one's ideology, are already creating a generational divide. Trump is seen as leader of mostly non-urban old whites while Modi is seen as leader of new generation from urban and non-urban alike. These two democratic leaders will reshape how leadership in the 21st century is defined by generations to come.

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Andand Kothari is an IT professional and community volunteer. toanand@yahoo.com