Trump and Modi - American and Indian populists meet in Washington | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 26.06.2017
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Trump and Modi - American and Indian populists meet in Washington

US President Trump and Indian PM Modi are both populist icons with polarizing personalities and unconventional leadership styles. But can looking into their backgrounds lend insight into how they will cooperate?

In October 2016, a few weeks before his surprising election victory, then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech at an event hosted by the Hindu Republican Coalition, during which he said he was a "big fan" of Hindus, and if he were to be elected, the Indian and Hindu community would have "a true friend in the White House."

Now six months into his presidency, Trump is receiving an even bigger "fan" of Hindus, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the White House on Monday. While analysts have downplayed expectations of deliverables from the meeting, both leaders' populist political styles and cult of personality make them unique figures of power and symbols of disruption in the world's two largest democracies.

The Trump administration has yet to define an "India policy" and Trump has injected uncertainty into India-US relations with issues including the reexamination of high-skilled worker's visas and US rapproachment with China.

Rather than expecting movement on these issues, many analysts are looking at how Trump and Modi will interact on a personal level based on some of their ostensibly similar character traits.

Make India great again

Indien Feuerritual Splitterpartei Hindu Sena unterstützt Trump (Reuters/A. Mukherjee)

Trump has support among right-wing Hindu nationalists in India

During and after the 2016 election, Trump and his political brand became symbols of American nationalism and this ignited a debate over whether "American" really meant white, Christian nationalism.

In India, Modi is openly a Hindu nationalist along with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  And much like Trump in the US, Modi in India is a figurehead for grassroots conservative nationalism and his supporters feel emboldened to act out.

There have been extreme instances recently in India where mobs of young Hindu extremists have lynched Muslims or murdered those eating beef.

There was also an incident this year at a university in New Delhi, during which BJP supporters attacked a seminar criticising nationalism and promoting free speech.

In a 2015 interview, communications expert Shakuntala Banaji told DW about the rise of nationalist violence in the year following Modi's election. "The number of incidents of intolerance from lynching and murder to vigilantism and the level of tacit and explicit support for intolerant, violent, aggressive behavior against individuals and groups at the level of the national government has risen steeply," she said.

In the US since Trump took office, there have been many questions raised by Indians living in the US, whether because of white-nationalist violence or immigration restrictions looming on the horizon. In February, the murder of two Indian men living in the US on a working visa shook the Indian immigrant community.

Read: For India's extremist Hindus, Trump is a hero

'Make in India' and 'Buy American'

On Sunday, after arriving in the US, Modi's first line of business was a roundtable meeting with top executives of American companies including Apple and Amazon. According to media reports, during his address, Modi presented India as a country with "minimum government" that would not stand in the way of business.

Modi shares with Trump an outlook of deregulation as was specified in the "Make in India" initiative, which was intended to dismantle "obsolete and obstructive frameworks" to business development in India.

Like Trump, Modi knows how to take advantage of appearances, especially when it comes to taking credit for increases in economic growth, which has burgeoned in India over the past two years making it one of the world's fastest growing economies. But many of Modi's economic supporters have also been disappointed over the past three years. And episodes like the chaos unleashed after banknotes were pulled out of circulation last year, are an example of failures in micromanagement.

Critics also say that "Make in India" legitimized marginalization of India's poorer population for the benefit of the wealthy and uses economic gain to promote nationalism.

Indien Narendra Modi Werbekampagne Make In India (Reuters/D. Siddiqui)

'Make in India' is Modi's plan to open India to foreign investment

"Campaigns like 'Make in India' appear to legitimize these actions as a form of nationalism and patriotism in the eyes of the middle classes who support the BJP and Modi, and to delegitimize dissent," said Banaji. "Thus anyone who mentions poverty becomes anti-national, and someone who takes land from tribal populations to give away to investors whether foreign or Indian is a patriot."

In the US, Trump's executive order signed in April "Buy American, hire American" will, in Trump's own words, "aggressively promote and use American-made goods and to ensure that American labor is hired to do the job."

Whether the America first economic rhetoric will translate into results remains to be seen, but much like Modi, Trump is connecting strong nationalist sentiments, with economic sorcery.

Social media mavens

Both Trump and Modi use social media to promote themselves and their platforms, albeit Modi has a far more disciplined Twitter finger. While Trump managed to win the 2016 US election in spite of his seemingly uncontrolled statements, Modi ran a directed campaign than used a mix of rhetoric and colloquialism to charge the BJP's base.

The success of both leaders in using social media is also shown in numbers. Respectively, Trump and Modi both have the first and second highest amount of Twitter followers for any world leader, with Trumps 32 million followers topping Modi's 31 million.


Preferring to communicate directly with their base via social media has enabled both Trump and Modi to set a narrative for domestic policy, which at least so far in Modi's case, has proven to translate into high approval ratings.

The big difference

Indien Wahlen 2014 BJP Narendra Modi (Reuters)

Modi during a 2014 campaign rally

While on the immediate surface both leaders seem to have much in common, it is also important to remember that they come from polar opposite worlds.

Trump was born the son of a wealthy real-estate investor and inherited a fortune on which to build. Modi's father was a tea-seller and he grew up very poor in a caste considered in India as a so-called "other backward caste" (OBC). OBC is a designation considered socially disadvantaged by the Indian government.

And unlike Trump, Modi has been involved with politics for most of his life. He  first became interested in Hindu nationalism at age eight, when he was introduced to the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group. The RSS helped Modi gain a foothold in the BJP and over the years, he succeeded in climbing the political ladder.

Trump remains a political outsider who has disparaged those within his own Republican Party. Modi also enjoys high approval ratings at home and the BJP has had a string of victories in regional elections.

Whether or not Modi finds a friend in the White House, the issues defining US-Indian relations will persist beyond Monday's show of decorum. As a candidate, Trump once promised to do "tremendous business" with India. But if America and India can be made great again together, it will take more than rhetoric.

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