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          Half a world apart, two elections strangely connected

          Half a world apart, two elections strangely connected

          Sitaraman Shankar

          Early next month, the world’s richest democracy will elect the world’s most powerful man. Currently, opinion polls put Joe Biden on track to showing the door to a president regarded by many as the worst in history, Donald Trump.

          If such a result comes to pass – though no one is ruling out a surprise – it will end an improbable four years for a man whose angularities contrast sharply with the grace of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump, by demeanour and behaviour, is still an outsider in the circles of power, taking on Biden, the dyed-in-the-wool ‘insider’ in Washington, a word Trump has managed to turn into a pejorative one.

          Around the same time, 12,000 kilometres away, a population one-third the size of America’s, crammed into a landmass the size of South Korea, also goes to the polls. Narendra Modi, who personally fights every Indian state election, is locked in another pandemic-time battle, in Bihar.

          It’s a stretch to draw any parallels between the two elections: After all, the Hindi heartland that spawned the BJP is one of India’s poorest regions. Modi is a seasoned administrator with a track record of two decades of governance in Gujarat and the Centre. No one is contemptuous of him, in contrast with Trump, often the object of ridicule.

          Still, many Bhakts will react with indignation at any criticism of the American president, suggesting a deep, if ultimately meaningless, bond with the Trumpian movement. This is bewildering, given that their Objects of Devotion are very different, and Trump’s feelings toward Modi are as inconsistent as his other likes and dislikes.

          But that may be a shallow reading. There are, after all, pronounced similarities in the two ‘revolutions’ – the one that catapulted the Republican to the White House in 2016 and the one that first swept India in 2014.

          Like Trump, Modi was an outsider to the circles of power, and disdainful of their trappings. Both are supremely self-assured politicians who are convinced of their own rightness: Maybe they listen too much to their followers, in whose eyes they can do no wrong. They are arch-polarisers, and their supporters use the classical right-wing playbook of whipping up fear and exploiting insecurities. As a result, fissures along race and community that always existed in both countries are now truly out in the open.

          Much has been made of Modi regularly referring to himself in the third person; Trump is the ultimate narcissist. They are both consummate communicators and use social media to great effect. And neither has much time for political correctness or the graces of convention.

          Trump and Modi preside over the two largest Covid-19 caseloads in the world. Around the time they bromanced in Ahmedabad earlier this year, the coronavirus was beginning to take hold. Modi was off the mark relatively quickly after that in fighting the virus, even if there were gimmicks in the early days, while Trump lived in denial. If he loses, Trump would have paid the price for that; if Modi wins, it will only show how effective spin has been in minimising the pandemic as an electoral issue here.

          Right-wing governments are seen as economy-friendly, often to the point of kowtowing to Big Business, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average under Trump has done less well than under Bill Clinton and Obama at a similar stage in their presidencies, according to data from macrotrends.net; the Sensex under Modi hasn’t done as well as in the UPA years as his reforming instincts have been strangely restrained.

          A point of departure is the way Modi’s party bends over backwards to attract his attention, while Trump’s Republicans don’t speak in one voice. A normally proper finance minister uses the fear of Covid-19 to garner votes in Bihar, the head of the women’s welfare watchdog is known for her illiberal views, pungently expressed, and the chief minister of the most populous state speaks in a way calculated to shock, and perhaps stake a claim to promotion.

          The contrast that stands out most, though, is how the two politicians are treated by their electronic media. Trump is regularly roasted, and takes it on the chin. He meets the press often, even if he hates many journalists. But 12,000 km away, supine broadcasters provide a free pass, if not much more.

          And the link between the two sets of supporters breaks among the Indian diaspora in the United States. Judging by the crowds when Modi goes calling, they adore him. But they also historically vote Democrat. Is this set to change, or do they prefer centrism to govern their lives while wishing for strongman, right-wing politics to rule in the mother country?

           
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