The Unlikely Relationship of Trump and Modi

President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, February 25, 2020. (Al Drago/Reuters)
Trying to use a populist movement to benefit his people, even if those reforms offend various minorities

This week, President Trump became the seventh sitting American president to visit India. But no presidential visit has been as important to the world’s largest democracy. Most of these past visits were largely celebratory in nature, involving vague proclamations about the future potential of a relationship between the two countries. But that relationship may have finally turned a corner.

To understand why Trump has become smitten with India as a partner, you must understand why he values Indian prime minister Narendra Modi as a confidant and ally. And to understand this relationship, you really must understand Modi the person.

Modi is not exactly new to the Indian political stage. He has been prime minister since 2014. Before that, he had a tumultuous tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, a large state in the western edge of the country. He is now among the most well-known heads of state in the world.

Despite this, Modi remains an enigma to many in the West. Unlike most other prominent national Indian politicians, he comes from the humblest of backgrounds. He was born into what is considered a “backward” caste. He grew up helping his father sell tea on a street-side stand, and ran a tea stand himself at a young age. As was the custom in many parts of India, he had an arranged marriage as a teenager. But he separated from his wife almost immediately and never remarried.

Modi has also rejected the classic path to power of great Indian leaders. The majority of modern Indian history has been dominated by the Congress Party, led at independence by Jawaharlal Nehru, followed by his daughter Indira Gandhi, and later his great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi. The former two, notably, endured many assassination attempts during their terms as prime minister; one killed Indira. Rahul currently leads the opposition. Meanwhile, Modi has turned his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into a juggernaut, shunting the Congress Party to opposition status.

The irony is Modi did not fit the classic stereotype to become the next great Indian leader. Modi began his political career as leader of the state of Gujarat. His tenure in that position was fraught with scandal — the most infamous being the religious riots of 2002. That episode started when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims from the controversial religious city of Ayodhya caught fire, killing 60 people. Modi, without evidence, immediately claimed that the tragedy was terrorism planned by Muslims. His allies called a statewide strike to protest the deaths, which rapidly turned into anti-Muslim riots. Carnage ensued for several weeks, as at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died. Well more than 150,000 people were driven to refugee camps to flee the violence. Most scholars believe that the government (and, in turn, Modi himself) was complicit in the rioting. And there is no question that Modi either lit the flame that caused the violence or was negligent in his attempts to put it out once the disaster had started.

Nevertheless, Modi won reelection as chief minister. Following his reelection, he focused on economic development while also attempting to push the hardline Hindu activists in his coalition to the wayside. That didn’t prevent widespread criticism of Modi’s prior actions, not only within India but also worldwide. The Obama administration famously denied him a visa to enter the U.S., under the International Religious Freedom Act; Modi, to this day, is the only person denied a visa under this law. The U.K. and the EU also both once refused to admit him because of his role in the riots (though each eventually did).

Yet with the waning of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the once-dominant Congress Party, a power vacuum was bound to open up. The BJP aimed to fill it. In 2013, Modi became the BJP’s candidate for prime minister, even given all of the controversy surrounding him.

That rise still baffles Indian political observers. Perhaps the best explanation is that Modi was steadfast in denouncing corruption. Indian political corruption is infamous for its intransigence and extent. Modi rose above much of this. He had never been linked to any significant corruption that enriched himself. His lack of a family and children are often cited as reasons why he could be trusted to remain incorrupt, while others could not say the same.

Modi focused his 2014 campaign on economic development and tied it to efforts of anti-corruption and modernization. He downplayed the BJP’s traditional, Hindu-oriented politics, replacing it with a more vocal support for secularism. This enabled the BJP to capture the imagination of the educated youth of India, who have long disliked the status quo and the classic old-style politics that had become so criticized in India.

In 2014, the BJP won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament) and became the first party since 1984 to create a government unilaterally, without coalition partners. It was a transformative moment for Indian national politics. Modi became the first prime minister of India born after independence. For many, it was a new era of Indian prominence on the world stage.

The BJP immediately began a massive reform project, attempting to streamline the Indian government bureaucracy while simultaneously centralizing power in the office of the prime minister. Modi’s economic policies were extremely modern by Indian standards, promoting privatization and liberalization of an economy that was still reeling from a half-century of classic socialism. He also pushed a form of populism and nationalism that may sound familiar to many Americans: a ‘Make in India’ campaign, which tried to promote more production and purchasing of products made domestically. Modi also simplified tax rates, property-purchasing, and business-starting. He cut some key subsidies and tried to improve overall government efficiency.

The most ambitious policy in Modi’s first term was one most people consider a failure: trying to rid the Indian economy of black money. “Black money,” as defined in India, is under-the-table income hidden from legal transactions to avoid taxes. It was a major source of funds for crime, terrorism, and political corruption. It had always been a major factor in the everyday lives of Indians. Yet the implementation of the plan to end black money was arguably a failure, as some people lost their lifetime savings, and it ineffectively reduced tax evasion and crime.

All of these failures made many suspect that Modi’s time was running out. They were wrong. Despite a below-average economy, high unemployment, and multiple domestic and foreign-policy missteps, Modi and the BJP won a resounding victory in the largest democratic election in world history, in which more than 900 million voted. His party gained in seats as well as in the popular vote, the first incumbent prime minister to do that since Nehru.

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After five years as prime minister, what is Modi’s key to popularity? It can best be described as “challenging the status quo.” Although he has not always been successful, voters have given him credit for trying.

And no two policies demonstrate Modi as an agent of change more than the shift in his government’s view of the status of Jammu and Kashmir, and the new immigration law that would provide special rights to all major religious groups . . . except Muslims.

Kashmir had always been given special status within the country because of its complicated entry into India at independence. It was given a temporary status that designated the state, as well as its citizens, as partial but not full members of the Indian Republic. That was the status that the citizens of Kashmir endured for more than seven decades.

The status quo demanded that this be a permanent fixture, although it was never so intended. The inability to apply national laws equally has led to a strange dichotomy of justice. Women had fewer rights there than in the rest of India and often couldn’t even own or inherit property. They were not fairly represented in the local governments, and domestic-abuse laws were much weaker in Kashmir. Minorities and refugees were not protected by affirmative action and other national laws. Modi challenged the belief that these issues could not be confronted. So he forcefully pushed through reforms that would give Kashmir and its surrounding provinces both equal representation and rights equal to those enjoyed in the rest of the country.

This, of course, came with geopolitical costs. The decision has sparked both jubilation and outrage across India’s diverse political spectrum: weeks of anger and protests in India and Pakistan, as tensions rose along the contested and highly militarized India–Pakistan border known as the Line of Control. And whether this policy will succeed or fail in the long term remains to be seen. But Modi has, for better or worse, once again challenged conventional Indian political dogma.

The shift in policy toward Kashmir was quickly followed with several other controversial reforms to immigration law. Called the Citizenship Amendment Act, the law was written to provide quicker refugee status to oppressed groups in neighboring Muslim-dominated nations. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians were all given special fast-track status toward receiving refugee immigration permits.

Notably absent from the list, however, were Muslim refugees, who maintained access to traditional refugee programs but not the fast-tracked version. The obvious exclusion raised numerous red flags in the secular nation, which has long prided itself in protecting all religious sects as equal under the law. Modi’s opponents, led by the Congress Party and their Muslim allies, quickly denounced the law as undermining the spirit of the Indian constitution. The public anger was quickly noticeable, as large protests erupted across the nation, with even some scattered incidents of violence and death.

Both with Kashmir and with the new immigration law, Modi has pushed the limits of what is acceptable under the Indian constitution. He sees legitimate problems that need to be solved in both cases. But his opponents see the echoes of the same Hindu-nationalist tendencies that led to riots and hundreds of deaths during his time as chief minister of Gujarat, and their concern over a possible developing Hindu fascist state led by the BJP grows ever greater. As religious tensions rise, Modi once again will have to prove he is not a religious supremacist but rather a reformer who will defend the principles of the Indian constitution. His opponents remain leery.

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So, what does this extensive history and life story of Modi tell us? First, that his new, close relationship with the world’s most divisive personality, Donald Trump, was not an obvious one.

And yet, for myriad reasons, Modi has connected with Trump in a way that no Indian prime minister connected with any previous American president. Last year, Modi came to Houston for a huge spectacle: the aptly named “Howdy Modi!” rally. Nothing better illustrates the relationship and mutual admiration the men share than this Texas rally, with more than 50,000 Americans in attendance, mostly Indian Americans (who are mostly Democratic voters).

None of this can change the fact that two-thirds of Indians in the U.S. lean Democratic. But the ability of Modi to connect to this growing political juggernaut is obviously attractive to Republicans, especially Trump. Trump has made the most of it, even doubling down on the relationship. Trump’s visit this week began with Modi’s own version of a huge domestic rally — this time, aptly named “Namaste Trump!”

Although Modi and Trump do not always agree (especially on trade issues), and despite their absolutely opposite upbringing and life stories, they have a similar worldview. And that view, conveniently for both of them, focuses on a populism that elevates their fellow citizens. Both Trump and Modi appeal to dominant voting blocs in their respective countries (Trump with whites, Modi with Hindus) and both have found an effective way to speak to those voters’ concerns about being left behind by their country’s leadership. So Modi’s affinity for Trump is less about any specific policy or position rather than about a general common view of how politics can help the common man, as they see him. In this manner, both men truly understand one another.

Maybe the central reason for Westerners’ inability to understand Modi is that they try to classify him as right- or left-wing. Neither label really fits Modi or, for that matter, most Indian leaders. Certainly he is Hindu-centric, and that alone has sown distrust in the Muslim community. But it is probably more apt to describe him more generally as a populist interested in economic development that will benefit all Indians. He lowered taxes across the board but increased subsidies for farmers. He focused on utilities for the poor as he expanded toilet facilities, clean water, and electricity to the rural masses. He cut red tape and regulations but also implemented a nationwide health-care system.

When Westerners see Modi, they see an elderly, Hindu-centric, nationalist, populist, third-world leader who dresses like a commoner, speaks only broken English, and doesn’t kowtow to traditional Western liberal orthodoxy the way most Indian leaders have in the past. The fact remains that much of the rest of the world views Modi as an agent of change, imperfect as he has been, who has brought reforms to India that were painful, necessary, and well-meaning — albeit not always successful. He is neither a liberal nor a conservative in the Western sense but a true Indian populist, willing to shift idealistic policies for realistic goals. And the lack of such realism in the West today is why many simply can’t understand the persona of the current Indian prime minister.

On the other hand, Trump views Modi as a compatriot, a person who is trying to use a populist movement to benefit his people, even if those reforms offend various minorities. And although that vision puts the two men at odds on certain issues, Trump respects this worldview. He can understand it in ways he can’t understand the worldviews of most European and North American leaders.

This has allowed Trump to trust Modi, despite their differences. And Modi, to his credit, has actively courted Trump’s friendship in return. So far, the benefit to both countries has been mutual. Although they still dispute trade and immigration issues, the strategic alliance militarily and diplomatically has never been stronger. It’s unlikely they will ever be formal allies. But the U.S. now conducts more military exercises with India than with any other non-NATO country. And both militaries have the same Indo-Pacific-region goal in mind: namely, to counter the emerging Chinese threat. India also continues to increase its collaboration with American intelligence collection, which is a boon to U.S. intelligence agencies with limited assets in the South Asian subcontinent.

This growing relationship is a boon to Trump’s “Made in America” policies. India traditionally has purchased most of its military goods from Russia and elsewhere. But now American companies are successfully challenging other suppliers for these long-term, lucrative deals, including several such deals announced on Trump’s recent trip.

Much remains to be done to forge the Indo–American alliance into what some can imagine as one of the great alliances of the 21st century. But amazingly, Trump and Modi have progressed down this road far more than anyone could have predicted on Election Day 2016. As India continues to prosper and grow, and America maintains its relative hegemony on the world stage, the futures of both countries are intertwined. Trump and Modi both want to be integral factors in the shape of that future.


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