The pendulum has swung far away from the Obamas and Manmohan Singhs, away from inclusive, tolerant paradigms of socio-economic life in the greatest democracies of the world
Much ink been spilled over the “What does Trump’s win mean for India?” question, yet relatively less has been said about how India and the U.S. have, together and independently, tangled with the complex politics of the 21st century and in that process been transformed in terms of how they view the world, and each other.
If we seek to move beyond the obvious impending crests and troughs in the bilateral relationship surrounding issues such as trade disputes, immigration and H-1B visas, and the Islamophobia-counterterrorism-Pakistan matrix, a deeper appreciation of where India and the U.S. stand as two leading standard-bearers of vibrant democracy in the world may emerge.
Rise and fall of the tide
For India, the apotheosis of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014 came after a decade of Congress-led policies that refashioned the landscape of resource redistribution, particularly the way in which the government provided public goods for the poor.
In particular, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Education Act signalled that a realisation had dawned upon India’s policymakers that growth, even when sustained above 8 per cent, would not trickle down fast enough, that for the country to truly “shine”, its poor had to have safety nets, and that the direct provision of welfare goods was a responsibility that the Indian state could not shrug off.
The rising tide of the boom years lifted all boats. But then the tide fell.
The shadow of the post-2008 global economic downturn loomed large over India. It became apparent that even the world’s fastest growing economies could bleed.
While the Indian economy’s sheer size, diversity and semi-porous financial architecture staved off crises of the sort witnessed in many European nations, its peak GDP growth rate of around 10.26 per cent in 2010 slipped sharply to around 5.6 per cent by 2012 and then moderated gradually upward to the current levels north of 7.5 per cent.
Even worse, the United Progressive Alliance-II government, led by a silent and stoic Manmohan Singh, was engulfed by a series of mega-scandals – 2G, Commonwealth Games and coal block allocations – which he and Congress President Sonia Gandhi did not eviscerate and rectify, leading to a hopeless morass of failed governance.
At this point, a critical event occurred. The dominant mindset of the previous decade, the belief that the fruits of prosperity should be shared widely and that repugnant social injustices meted out to the vulnerable have no place in an aspirational democracy withered.
It was replaced by a more calculated and calculating dogma of individual betterment in a chaotic, dangerous world, one where new weapons of mass communication could be deployed to silence critics with frightening precision, and the mushroom cloud of social media frenzy became a regular feature of the online experience. It was a world where the talents of a man such as Mr. Modi, the Chief Minister who lifted up Gujarat from economic doldrums into the neo-liberal nirvana of industrial conglomeration, burned bright.
Mr. Modi, as it turned out, was seen as the messiah not only for his aptitude for grand macroeconomic strategising and “good governance,” which he demonstrated in his home State, but also because he so ably detected the national mood of anger against the status quo and climbed on the back of that rogue elephant and rode it all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Regular exhortations to demonstrate macho power and stand strong against the “other” embellished this narrative of nativist revival, even as it relied on one intoxicating mass sentiment: patriotism. Today, halfway into his term in office, that mood has not only persisted, it has been the very wind beneath the Prime Minister’s wings.
That mood is why demonetisation, a policy that would have been shot down a decade ago for the risk it posed to livelihoods of millions of poor across rural and urban India, has been so resoundingly applauded amongst the middle class chatterati and Twitterati.
That mood of exaggerated nationalistic pride, the 56-inch chest syndrome, is why instead of decrying the horror of military brutality along the Line of Control and in Kashmir, and the recklessness of nuclear-armed belligerence, the “surgical strikes” against Pakistan have been welcomed exultantly on the streets of metropolitan India and the phrase “befitting reply” is thrown about with callous delight.
Where America stands today is where India stood in 2014.
Explaining Trump’s win
Reams of analysis of the November 8 election result have sought to rationalise the unexpected victory of Donald Trump as the response of white, blue-collar Americans in the Rust Belt states to years of elitist federal governance that neglected the decaying effect of globalisation and accompanying de-industrialisation in the West on the American Dream.
A different theory, however, questions why this “white lash” happened in 2016 when American companies have been moving at an accelerating pace since the arrival of the Internet, their operations travelling to offshore locations in Asia and other emerging economies for decades.
Could it be pure coincidence that this likely rejection of pluralist America follows eight years of rule by the country’s first ever African-American president? Or indeed in the wake of so many judicial and executive rulings during Barack Obama’s time that lent credence to a multicultural, inclusive vision of the U.S.?
How many white American voters were motivated purely by the desire for a different economic model, howsoever unrealistic, and how many were motivated by animus against the U.S.’s marriage equality law, the landmark healthcare reform law that brought insurance to the poor, and the compassionate approach enshrined in deferred deportations for children of undocumented immigrants?
Reality, complex as it always is, probably has room enough for both of these theories to explain Mr. Trump’s win. Yet it is undeniable that ever since the rise of the Tea Party as a reaction to the campaign for Obamacare, well-meaning conservative critics of economic liberalism have happily allowed a smorgasbord of racists, misogynists and bigots to climb on board their bandwagon. Thus it should but be expected that President-elect Trump would appoint heroes of the white nationalist movement, known Islamophobic conspiracy theorists, and anti-immigration champions to senior positions in his administration.
This comes back to the dominant mood of a nation – the pendulum has clearly swung far away from the Obamas and Manmohan Singhs of the world, away from their respective parties, and away from inclusive, tolerant paradigms of socio-economic life in the greatest democracies of the world.
The America of Mr. Trump and the U.K. of Nigel Farage and Theresa May are but the Western mirror images of Mr. Modi’s India. Let liberals in all these nations henceforth be unsurprised by what is sure to follow, yet remain watchful, steadfast, and courageous.