India’s Narendra Modi Poses a Greater Threat to Liberalism Than Trump Does

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with the media on the opening day of the parliament session in New Delhi, India, June 17, 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
Both lead movements against liberalism, but one of them is driven by youth and has time on its side.

Many in the West regard Narendra Modi as a brown, bearded Donald Trump. And there’s some reason to believe them.

In 2014, Modi announced himself to India as a radical changemaker, promising to end corruption, confront corporations, and kick-start a faltering economy. He would crush the rank dynasty politics of the Gandhi family’s Congress party, reverse the fate of the failing rupee, and confront neighboring Pakistan’s forces in the land of Kashmir. Twitter became a mouthpiece for attacks on metropolitan, Western-sympathizing elites; Bollywood became a way to adopt the language of the common man. Traditional political procedure turned into an unavoidable burden — a mere sideshow to a mass movement of disillusioned, rural workers.

Modi went on to receive the first majority India had seen for 30 years. The narrative is a familiar one — I’ll leave you to draw the obvious parallels. But there are crucial differences between Modi’s movement and the one that led Trump to power two years later, and they are worth noting for anyone who wants to understand these phenomena in the context of history.

In 1996, Salman Rushdie suggested that the Indian and the American cultures could “recognize each other.” What did he mean? The two nations may be far apart in wealth and geography, but they are both “made up of people who come from elsewhere.” Of course, the melting pots are hardly filled with the same ingredients: In India, it’s a concoction of caste, religion, and language; in America, race, ethnicity, and country of birth. But both have in common their possession of a shared identity — a national ethos that has enabled their disparate, sprawling subgroups to coexist.

This has hardly been a peaceful, easy process — minorities have long been persecuted at the hands of both governments. But the mere fact that the world’s two largest democracies have managed to make it to the 21st century intact defies all the norms of democratic government and state formation. Both countries won their independence from the British; India started with partition, America with revolution. Both were outcomes of calamitous conflict and civil unrest — and at their onset, nobody expected either to survive.

America’s revolutionary war spanned five years. It was resisted from abroad and cost upward of 100,000 lives. Yet it was also the only national revolution that actually worked — in large part because America was never intended to be a utopia. As many better writers have explained before, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers was their understanding of human limitation. They recognized that any system must accommodate the worst in man as well as the best — and this led them to ensure that their republic was founded on a profoundly conservative set of documents. Individual rights; freedom of speech; the division of executive, legislative, judicial powers. And perhaps most important of all, the separation of church and state.

A unique form of secularism characterized India’s founding, too. On Independence Day in 1947, at a temple in the Hindu holy town of Banaras, the national flag was unveiled by a Muslim. The vast majority of Indians were Hindus, and that remains so today, but the country also has the world’s second-largest Islamic population. The National Congress party wished to unite the country across this divide, but many on both sides — most significantly, the Muslim League — remained unconvinced that this was either desirable or possible. The result was years of bloody rioting between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and it followed that independence came not to one nation but to two. Partition was the greatest mass migration in history — states were split, cleansed of diversity, and stained with blood. And so it was that when Gandhi and Nehru found themselves at the helm of a desperately poor, divided nation, they passed a resolution to ensure “the rights of minorities.” The initiative proclaimed equal recognition for every citizen’s faith under the law — secularism was not officially codified until 1976, but it was inscribed in India’s great democratic experiment from the beginning. This was a notably different secularism from the Western form — it was not a separation between state and faith but a commitment to state inclusion of all nationally represented faiths.

The genius of both Modi and Trump is their ability to rewrite these national narratives — not with outright lies, but with emotional half-truths. Their task has been made easier by opposition parties that have long forgotten how to tell a convincing story — and who have often been guilty of practices that many voters have rightfully come to resent.

Under Modi, India is redefined as a Hindu state, with dharma (the Hindu word for duty) at its roots. His vision transforms Indian society from a heterogenous blend into a supposedly unified commonality — alternative faiths can be accommodated, but for pragmatic reasons alone. This is not, as some suggest, a contemporary development — it has intellectual roots in the work of those who always dismissed Nehru’s secularism as a loose liberal fantasy. These thinkers sought to blend modernity with the country’s Hindu inheritance, prioritizing cultural allegiance to the nation over religious pluralism.

The problem, of course, is that such a philosophy is a dangerous fiction. The British raj took over from a Muslim empire, not a Hindu one. Hindutva is an attempt to conflate complex national history with religious quest, rendering Indian citizenship equivalent to spiritual commitment and persecuting those who don’t subscribe.

Yet the sentiment appeals to an ever-increasing swathe of unemployed young Indians — the “Modi Generation,” who believe that the 21st century world can be made in their image. The median age in India is 29 — compared with 40 in America — and the country has more young people than any other. These youth did not live through partition. They see a world full of failed Muslim-majority states, the closest of which are next-door neighbors. It does not matter that their hero has failed to bring them jobs. It does not matter that he was complicit in the loss of hundreds of Muslim lives in Gujarat. What matters is that he is a lower-caste man who spent his boyhood years selling tea at a train station. He is the incarnation of a proud working-class calling — of Hindu dharma — and he is willing to spread that symbolism through social media.

Trump has also harnessed the potential of social networks, but he has done so appealing to an entirely different demographic. America’s electorate has gradually become older, wealthier, better educated — in other words, its people have grown to look more like its politicians. As a result, the electorate has become increasingly polarized — the so-called elite are no longer only the men and women in government, but anybody who could conceivably take a politician’s place.

Over a third of American adults have a university education, and those who do are significantly wealthier and more liberal. Trump won by appealing to those on the other side of the education divide — the best single predictor of Trump support in the Republican primary was the lack of a college degree.  The country has also grown significantly more ethnically diverse, and Trump’s trick was to argue that America was once a unified utopia. As living standards stagnated and social norms changed, the message cut through, and many were left feeling nostalgic for a previous age. The Democratic party’s response was to position itself firmly on the side of migrants and minorities — cultural anxieties were nothing but a mask for racist white deplorables. There was no recognition of people’s fears or attempts to heal divides across identity groups — only a repudiation of the notion that somebody considering voting for Trump could be taken seriously. Alienation turned to anger, and anger morphed into resentment — the educated elites were going to pay the price for their mistakes.

Unlike Modi’s, Trump’s supposedly golden age did exist in the recent past. The call to “Make America great again” does not harken back across three empires. In Trump’s frame, immigrants and minorities are no longer an integral part of the national story — like Modi’s Muslims, they are said to have infringed on the well-being of an ethnic (or, in the Indian case, a religious) majority. The superior “greatness” of this period is certainly an illusion — America was more racist and less prosperous 50 years ago. But illusions are powerful when times are tough – particularly when loneliness has been on the rise for generations.

If it was up to Trump, he would probably have ridden this populist wave to undermine America’s constitutional underpinnings. But he has been constrained by her robust institutions and his own incompetence. Despite repeatedly announcing his admiration for authoritarians, he has not yet made any permanent inroads in emulating them. He failed to build a wall on the Mexico border, failed to maintain a ban on Muslim immigrants, and failed to take over the mainstream media. Ironically, his inability to fulfill all his promises has been masked by economic growth and one or two foreign-policy successes. But his greater aspiration — that is, his personal aspiration — looks to be checked (at least for now) by the Founding Fathers’ foresight.

Modi, by contrast, has already monopolized the media establishment. Bollywood movies have been made about his rise, and he has instituted his own textbooks in high schools. Perhaps he is simply a more capable populist — Modi is politically astute, whereas Trump appears routinely impulsive. But he is also aided by the fact that India is a weaker democracy, and that his young, working-class base is set to gain greater voting power.

Social-media access will increase across the Asian subcontinent, and Modi’s message will reach further. Citizens in rural states may be flocking to urban areas, but those living in rural villages — who decide the election results — still make up over 70 percent of India’s population. The average age of a politician is currently 30 years higher than that of a voter — that is also likely to change, but it will also take time. When Modi’s party were emphatically reelected earlier this year, there were 130 million newly eligible voters. Turnout among voters ages 18 to 25 surpassed that of the general population, and 80 percent of those young Indians believe voting should be made compulsory. This base is politically engaged and believes in democracy — what it has less faith in, however, is secular liberalism.

In America, young people are becoming less keen on democracy — since the US population is rapidly ageing, its youth are outnumbered for the first time. Trump understands that, and his response is to energize his older voters. And the Democrats have failed to appeal to those who don’t subscribe to his brand. Whereas Modi’s victories have been expressions of enthusiasm, Trump’s was to a greater extent an expression of disillusionment. The Republican party lost votes, but the Democrats lost more. Representative politics relies on active participation.

As all of this plays out, two economic clocks are ticking. Trump failed to deliver his cultural promises but maintained his divisive rhetoric and cut taxes — he sacrificed economic populism to sustain the tail end of consistent growth. If the economy doesn’t stop booming before 2020, he may ride his way to another term. Meanwhile, Modi failed to deliver on the economy but doubled down on his religious machismo. His socialist roots led him to try expanding the economy through executive order, but the rupee is in freefall, there is widespread unemployment, and economic growth is slowing down by the month. The approach reflects the Modi generation’s indifference to history. Perhaps it is no surprise — socialism appeals to the young.

If Hindu duty and nationalistic fervor are baked into Modi’s identity, it seems as though the people are willing to forgive his economic mistakes. But for how long? That remains to be seen. The Congress party shows no sign of extending authority beyond the Gandhi family. And in America, the Democrats’ doubling down on identity politics might end up prolonging Trump’s stay. Population growth is at an all-time low, the electorate is growing older, and the American class divide is continuing to deepen. People want rootedness, but the world is becoming less stable. Climate change and migration will rock the boats faster.

Not all populists come to destroy democracy — some arrive in order to rescue it. But their attempts are rarely successful without significant cost — economic catastrophe, mass civil unrest, or all-out war. This is not fascism, but two democracies in serious crisis. Both are closer to the gilded age of the 1890s than to the horrors of the 1930s. Neither leader shows any sign of pausing for breath. But the difference is that Modi sees a rising a generation in his wake.

Donald Trump is promising a recent past to an alienated mass. Narendra Modi is asking a burgeoning majority to help him erect a new future. Either movement could spell the end of liberalism or force its defenders to make a more persuasive case. But it remains true that the youth have always been more willing to fight for their cause.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.

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