Modi and Trump: From the Ashes of Gujarat to the Ban on Muslims

Those in the international affairs arena are struggling to find a precedent abroad for the rise of Donald Trump. Some have found similarities in the nativism and mistrust of Trump’s candidacy and the Brexit campaign. Others think Robert Duterte, president of the Philippines, mimics Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric and propensity for gaffes. However, Trump’s candidacy reminds me of an election I witnessed firsthand while traveling through India.

Image courtesy of Norbert Schiller, © 2008

Image courtesy of Norbert Schiller, © 2008

I was a student at the time, traveling across the country from Chennai in the south to Amritsar on the Pakistani border. Everywhere I went, I saw posters advertising and heard people talking about the campaign of one Narendra Modi. Modi was an outspoken chief minister from the state of Gujarat challenging Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister and leader of the ruling National Congress Party. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) positioned itself as the reformer of India, challenging the corruption and kleptomania of the country’s elites. Like in the United States today, there was building anger in India over slow economic growth that was blamed on a system favoring the elites. Similarly to the United States, those who governed India were viewed as out of touch with the common man, as well as hopelessly corrupt and inept.

Many of the same fears and frustrations Donald Trump taps into were utilized by Modi and the BJP. But there was one thing holding Modi back: similar to Trump, Modi was pegged as Islamophobic, but unlike Trump (whose xenophobia is confined to his rhetoric and proposed policies), Modi had blood on his hands. As chief minister of Gujarat, he stood by while a pogrom claimed the lives of roughly a thousand Indians, mostly Muslims. The mobs that roamed Gujarat — looting, raping, and murdering in response to a deadly train fire that killed Hindu pilgrims — were in many cases incited by members of Modi’s BJP Party and other followers of Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology. There was widespread apathy in the local police force that resulted in a limited number of arrests and few attempts to intervene to end the madness. While Modi was never charged for his role in the riots, accusations that he ordered government officials to stand down during the killings plague him still today.

Everyone from Christian professors to Muslim Sufi mystics and Hindu workers outside the Taj Mahal believed — and told me — that Modi would not be elected. They took for granted that a political outsider like him could not overthrow the elites who had governed India for so long, that Modi’s bigotry would disqualify him in the eyes of the majority of Indians, that respect for minorities was a core principle of the world’s largest democracy.

So I was surprised when, after returning to the United States, Modi won in a landslide. In the end, there was status quo frustration with corruption and the emergence of two sets of rules — one for the common person and one for the elites, both of which led to economic stagnation and caused the majority of Indians to vote for an outsider. Neither I nor the people I met in India thought Modi had a chance, but after seeing Modi elected, I don’t think the same about Donald Trump.

Many political commentators take issue with statements Donald Trump has made about Muslims and Latinos, and his proposed policies rooted in bigotry. They believe these comments should and will cost Trump the presidency. While I would like to believe that bigoted comments by any candidate would invalidate his or her candidacy in the eyes of voters, the realities of economics often overshadow the virtues of tolerance. One of the downsides of democracy is the constant threat of the emergence of a tyranny of the majority, and currently the majority of Americans are anxious about the state of the economy. No matter how many headlines Donald Trump’s nativist comments make, the rights of minorities will ultimately take a back seat to the job market and stagnate wages this election.

In India, the public’s trust in Modi’s financial expertise was well founded. After all, Modi had been chief minister of Gujarat province, which has historically been one of India’s thriving trading gems. Moreover, to some degree, this trust was rewarded: under Modi, India overshot China as the world’s fastest-growing major economy and foreign direct investment is at an all-time high. But the cost has also been high: now millions of Indian Muslims are left knowing that their countrymen voted for an Islamophobe. They are left questioning whether Indian society welcomes them.

While Trump is undoubtedly wealthy, his business acumen is questionable, especially when compared to Modi. For what the United States is being offered, it cannot accept the price of isolating millions of ethnic and religious minorities from U.S. society. The threat of Modi was not that his election would lead to a repeat of the Gujarat massacre; it was that his election would lead to two Indias, one of the majority and one of an isolated and disillusioned minority. The United States cannot afford to repeat India’s mistake.

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