Much has been made of the increasingly polarised politics of Premier Narendra Modi. There are discussions of the Hindu versus non-Hindu agenda driving Modi’s leadership, there is talk of modern class divides, regional divides and gender divides. One can add to this list, an age divide. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has gone out of its way to style itself as a youthful party representing India’s future. If this is going to be the case, it means that India’s future will take several steps back in time vis-a-vis a more progressive recent past.
Most Indians of a certain age, even if they are apolitical, have a soft spot for Russia. When India gained independence from the British Empire, the Soviet Union was looked to as both an ally and an inspiration. While Britain represented the old, the exploitative and the classist, the USSR represented modernity, anti-colonial liberation and fraternity. The USSR’s material aid to the young Republic of India combined with the warm socio-political embrace of the Soviet Union to India, continues to be remembered by those of a certain generation in both countries with the phrase Hindi-Russi Bhai Bhai.
In the years since, in spite of the Soviet Union giving way to a Russian Federation, Russia has remained far truer to the progressive cause than India. While Modi tries to paint the opposition secular/progressive Indian National Congress (INC) as ‘yesterday’s men’, the sectarian ideology of Hindutva is actually a throw back to a time before Independence when those with a limited vision of what India could be, wanted to define and thus, confine India to a narrow interpretation of nationhood and national identity. In this sense, Hindutva short changed the vast multi-cultural experiences that define millennia of south Asian history.
But for Modi and the BJP, it is literally back to the future, where old ideas are being delivered via the ultra contemporary Twitter account of the Premier himself. It is little wonder that a Trump led United States is now considered the most inspirational superpower among the BJP and like-minded groups.
While Donald Trump’s personal lifestyle is modern to a fault, much of his base are self-defined reactionaries. Where the baby boomer generation revelled in embracing progressive values alien to previous generations, today’s young Trump supporters are inclined towards the opposite. Where a child who grew up in the 1960s embraced the concept of equality between black and white Americans, between children of immigrants and children of the American “Revolution” and between men and women, for the readers of Breitbart, followers of Steve Bannon and the even younger Trump supporting followers of Milo Yiannopoulos, it is once again “cool” to revel in so-called ‘white pride’, to associate even the most fundamental concepts of women’ rights with the distasteful and to mock those who are descended from immigrants, particularly those of Mexican heritage.
If this sounds familiar to those who follow Indian cultural trends more closely than American ones, this is because in the Modi era, it is once again “cool” to blame all national and even international problems on Muslims, it is now de rigueur to associate all Muslim Indians as Pakistanis even if they’ve never visited Pakistan and all the while, a frightening anti-woman rape epidemic ravages communities throughout the nation, often with the implied consent of Hindutva apologists.
Thus, by embracing Trump’s America, the BJP supporters in India have found a geopolitical soul mate in so far as both seek to trash the progressive legacies of the recent past and go back to something before. In Russia things are very different. The anti-sectarianism of Communism remains, while today Russians can publicly expressed faith in any religion of their choosing–the two most prominent being Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Likewise, atheists remain a sizeable minority among the Russian population.
In terms of foreign policy, one could argue that Putin’s Russia is at times even more progressive than the USSR, because while the USSR bonded with countries whose political systems leaned towards a similar socialist ideology, today, Russia makes partnerships across all ideological divides. For today’s Russia, the only required element is a matter of mutual respect between international partners. This is by definition, progressive, open minded and anti-imperialistic.
While older Indians remain fond of the Soviet/Russian ideals catalogued above, many younger BJP supporters want to be like Trump’s America–only there is a material problem that both the US and India are ignoring. While socially and culturally, Hindutva and the ‘alt-right’ mentality of many young Americans wants to go back to the past, the economic needs of both countries are being ignored, even though the problems are starring them in the face.
Some ‘alt-right’ Americans may dream of sending black Americans to the back of the bus, but the bus is no longer made by General Motors–the bus is made in Japan. Likewise, while BJP supporters continue to Tweet about how Muslims and Pakistanis are the root of all India’s problems, they may have failed to notice that the phone and computer they use to Tweet are made in China and China values Pakistan as one of its most important partners.
By returning to a comfort zone from a time beyond the memory of most living Indians and Americans, Modi and Trump are attempting to skirt economic responsibilities, even though the failure of both India and the US to produce anything near the quality of East Asian economies like China in particular, is blatant.
There is a political cartoon circulating in India and Pakistan, depicting a naked man standing before a supervisor in an office with the caption “I’ve decided to get rid of everything Chinese in my life”. This cartoon is a useful metaphor for how both Modi and Trump are emperors without clothes.
Those in India who remember the days of Hindi-Russi Bhai Bhai and those in America who remember the days of “Think of your fellow man, lend him a helping hand”–will certainly be able to discern the difference. What’s more is that unlike those who remember the days of Jim Crow in the US and the founding of the Hindutva movement in India–those who remember the mid 20th century, are largely still alive.