Public dissent should be seen as the highest public duty
These are times of global disquiet. Gales of hatred and bigotry are sweeping country after country around the world. After Donald Trump’s emphatic and stunning electoral success to the office of the president of the US, I wrote this mail to many American friends:
“Like many around the world, I am in mourning, just as I was two and a half years back in India. I see this as the triumph once again of prejudice and hatred: this has become the current powerful public common sense globally. Love and goodwill will prevail one day. Of this I am sure. But what will happen until then?”
I received many responses. “Yes we are devastated here and there are so many tears,” one friend wrote. “Protests are building up daily in major cities. It is a waking nightmare.”
And another, in reflective anguish, “I am still in a bit of shock, uncertain as to what this means – what it says about the American character, what impact this will have on ‘out groups’ in America and the rest of the world. I truly did not think this was possible. We have essentially elevated the basest characteristics of human nature to the highest office in the land. We have vindicated vengeance, hatred and exclusion – not only that, all of those things are part of Donald Trump’s mandate to govern, since he did not hide who he was. I feel physically sick at the thought of the next four years.”
Some friends wrote in rage, “A fascist bully is going to the White House. We are also so angry at the Clinton machine for its arrogance and its utter failure to address many of the issues that Trump cynically exploited.” Another observed, “Condolences are indeed in order around the world – Trump is a planet killer and those on the flood plain in Bangladesh will suffer more than those of us in the United States in the long run.” And yet another, “I understand your sentiments. But, to be frank, I am not in mourning. This country had it coming, Americans got the president they deserved…”
And finally, hopefully and sombrely at the same time, “As you’ve said, love and good will prevail. We have no choice but to get stronger, become more intuitive and understanding, and let that lead our action. And to never, ever take anything for granted: the worst we can imagine can happen, and we have to prepare for it and fight through it. In India and the US, those dark days have unfortunately arrived. Now, more than ever, is the time to be alert and invigorated – we have many, many difficult days ahead of us.”
The mood of these exchanges took me back two and a half years, when the results of the 2014 midsummer elections in India confounded liberals and minorities with a very similar feeling, of being shocked and distraught. Of disbelief, even mourning, identical to what large segments of the liberal American populace are in the throes of today. Many friends called me then to say that they did not believe that a day could come when India’s electorate would vote in a divisive majoritarian government of the kind that Narendra Modi won the mandate for.
For minorities in both countries – of race, religion, caste, gender, ethnicity and sexuality – there was a mood of dread and the hurt of intense betrayal. The stunning popular vote, they believed, laid bare what the majority of Indians felt about us all along, and we never suspected that they held in their hearts so much hate. We felt up to now that we belonged. But the masks are off, and we realise that in this country that we love, we will always be a minority. The same torment, the shattering of faith is what people of colour in America are living through today.
As millions of Americans wonder with sombre foreboding the coming years have in store for their peoples and the peoples of the world, it is instructive to compare the electoral choices made by the world’s two largest democracies to their highest offices. (It does not matter in the end that the electoral majorities in both countries were in fact numerical minorities). The differences between the two men chosen to lead their countries by voters are obvious. One is a billionaire, with a flamboyant life-style, the other from much more humble origins. In personal life, one has moved from marriage to marriage, the other has never lived with the only woman he married. One has no experience in governance, the other had led a major province of India for a dozen years. One also has no stable long-term ideological moorings in any social or political organisation, whereas the other has remained rooted deeply for all his adult life in the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. This organisation is avowedly devoted to the establishment of a Hindu nation entirely at odds with India’s secular constitution. Trump was endorsed by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, but was not a member of this. And most of all, there are striking contrasts in their economic prescriptions for the failure of the economy to create jobs. One, as we shall see later, seeks to reverse globalisation, the other to deepen it.
But there are overwhelming, and sobering, similarities between these two men that overshadow the obvious differences between them. Most of all, both ran vigorous and expensive shock and awe electoral campaigns that mirrored and amplified popular majoritarian bigotry and chauvinism. They cynically reflected, reproduced, widely broadcast and above all legitimised the most dishonourable sentiments of prejudice and hatred. Trump’s public bigotry, worn as a badge of hyper-masculine distinction, closely mirrored Modi’s shrill and open anti-minority stances.
These were particularly in evidence in Modi’s public addresses in his series of electoral bids to the office of chief minister of Gujarat after the 2002 communal carnage that targeted Muslim women and children with great cruelty, with frequent references to his “56-inch chest”. Modi was only a little more restrained in his electoral speeches in 2014 as he fought his way to the country’s leadership, although his speeches were still peppered with snide references to the “pink revolution” of alleged surge in beef exports, or threats to Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam that were soon followed by a brutal slaughter of Bengali Muslim women and children there. But his close allies, like BJP Amit Shah and many other, were more open in their anti-minority rhetoric, and both their political mobilisation and public discourse openly and emphatically preyed on prejudice and hatred. And the party he led, the Bharatiya Janata Party, did not field a single Muslim in any constituency, although they constitute about 15% of the population. The message to them was that for us you are politically insignificant.
Modi and Trump both rose to office appealing to the basest instincts of suspicion, distrust, fear and hate of the artificially constructed Other – fellow countrymen and women belonging to minorities. They did this by portraying them as dangerous, parasitical, the sinister enemy within. The two politicians positioned themselves as the only alpha male in public life who had the courage to name, shame and fight these unpatriotic threats, in contrast to weak mendacious bleeding-heart liberals and secularists. Both cast themselves as warriors who had stormed the citadels of the liberal establishment of privilege. It helped that for both, their centrist political opponents – the Congress in one case and Hillary Clinton in the other – were widely seen as part of the entrenched establishment of power, and carried less credibility in their authenticity of their liberal and pro-poor credentials.
But the campaigns of both Modi and Trump did not give voice to the underdog. Instead, they actually fed on the resentment of the relatively privileged who railed against minorities pulling themselves out of their historical disadvantage and competing with them for jobs and power. The more outrageous their pronouncements, even if they shocked liberal opinion, these only consolidated their support-base among this multitude of threatened privilege, stoking further their disaffection and loathing with each strike.
Through this, they legitimised a strange moral inversion, in which the relatively privileged majority – in one case white Americans, and in the other upper-caste Hindus – were portrayed not as the persecutors but the persecuted. This was their country, yet they were being treated as second-class citizens. The minorities and the poor were recreated in this triumphing discourse not as the dispossessed, the persecuted, but as the persecutors, stealing the jobs and the political and economic dominance of the legitimate citizens, and parasitical on their hard-earned tax money and their country. They thus posited a bogus hierarchy of citizenship. The country belonged to them, these denizens of threatened privilege, and the freeloading interlopers were cunningly taking over their country from them. At last now they had found leaders who were men enough to call a spade and spade, and restore their country to those to who it belonged.
A new counterfeit hyper-nationalism emerged out of this freshly minted political hegemony of the privileged but resentful majority, in which both assertions of liberal inclusiveness and dissent are demonised as unpatriotic. Modi’s slogan “India First” closely echoed Trump’s “Making America Great Again”, the innuendo being that for their political and ideological opponents, their country did not come first, and instead they were enfeebling their nations by their faux liberalism and by pandering to minorities. Trolls and abuse are heaped on all those who question these leaders who promise to return the nation to the hands of those to who it really belongs.
Thriving on division
The two leaders, during their over-heated election campaigns, also lowered precipitously – but I hope not permanently – the civility and decency of public discourse at the country’s highest levels. Suddenly, civility and elementary courtesy became both passé and signs of political weakness. Instead, we found that political opponents were treated with an unrelenting barrage of abuse, invective and innuendo. What is more, this often coarse political hectoring was mounted as high public entertainment, as high oratory, all made for television and the echo chambers of social media. The relatively civil opponent was depicted as ineffectual, weak, and sometimes in India almost comical. Technology facilitated this spectacle as political circus, a daily reality show, with unceasing pounding assaults of viral trolls and (in India) Modi’s ubiquitous holograms.
Their election laid bare the frightening face of two profoundly fractured, divided nations. For the first time, the electoral victories were not seen by their supporters simply as the triumphs of a political leader or party, but the conquest of and by their supporters themselves, electrified with an unprecedented sense of triumphalism. Mirroring this, their distraught opponents saw the electoral outcomes not as the defeat of their chosen political candidate or formation, but as their own personal defeat. The triumphalist victors in India were big industry, the middle classes, the aspirational middle class and bigoted Hindu nationalists. In the United States, these were resentful white Americans, men as well as women, of the middle and working classes, but not the very poor. The distressed losers in both countries were strikingly similar: secular and liberal Indians and Americans, minorities of many kinds, and the poor.
These are both leaders who did nothing – and can be expected to do nothing in the future – to bridge or heal the dangerous and painful divides in their nations. Instead, they thrive precisely on these ruptures. Without these schisms, they have no reason to be. They work, and will continue to work, to widen and consolidate these gulfs further, making bridge-building and healing in the future increasingly difficult, basking in the adoration of their angry and triumphalist supporters as much as in the dread and agitation of their opponents.
Each promised to fix the economy by creating millions of jobs. And both are doomed to miscarry. But what is interesting is that they promised to accomplish this by diametrically opposed medicine prescriptions.
Modi vowed and convinced young aspirational voters that he would lead them into the glittering citadels of the middle classes. He would do this by hastening further globalisation and structural adjustment with even more stern and undiluted market fundamentalism than his predecessors, and this would create jobs for the millions joining the workforce every month who are dreaming of a better life in a globalised world.
But Trump’s remedy is just the reverse, of turning back globalisation with much greater protectionism. Jobs have been Bangalored, or outsourced to emerging economies with masses of coloured young people lining up to steal the jobs that are legitimately those of (white) Americans.
However, both are bound to fail their voters profoundly. Sky-high economic growth in India has been accompanied by the creation of almost no decent work opportunities. Both leaders are actually tapping into a mounting discontent created and fuelled by the unacknowledged global crisis in neo-liberalism, namely its failure to create massive opportunities for decent work. And as they both are bound to betray this central pledge of their campaigns, the only recourse they would have to offer is of scapegoating people of greater disadvantage than them as raiders and robbers of their own chances for a better life, and of stoking further the fires of aggressive hyper-nationalism.
Both UP President Barack Obama and Clinton counsel that we should give Trump a chance. The intensely alarmed and dismayed liberals and minorities are being reassured that perhaps the in-the-face bigotry and sexism of Trump’s campaign was just a strategy to get elected, and he would be sobered and responsible with his occupying his high office. This is identical to the reassurance that we in India were offered two and a half years ago when Modi was elected prime minister. What lessons can the Americans take from the experience of the Indian people since Modi’s election? It is that Trump will not change with the responsibilities of high office.
It is true that Modi has made relatively statesmanlike pronouncements from time to time, mainly on foreign soil, and less often openly articulated bigotry than he did in the past. If Trump is willing to listen to such counsel from his aides, he may possibly do the same. But is that really any solace for the minorities and the dispossessed? Just by Modi’s occupation of the highest office, bigots across the country were emboldened to persecute and attack minorities, their places of worship and livelihoods, with unprecedented impunity. Divisive agendas, cloaked in claims of patriotism, are raised keeping communal tempers also high. One day it is love jihad, another cow slaughter, a third Pakistan’s perfidy, a fourth university dissent, a fifth the angry revolt of Kashmiri youth. Muslims and Dalits have been reduced to live with fear and violence as second-class citizens.
Modi, not otherwise known to be ever at a loss for words, remains strategically voiceless through all of this, even as his hand-picked party president, ministers, chief ministers and legislators continue to stoke divisive fires. A BJP parliamentarian in a public rally staggeringly describes those who don’t worship Ram as bastards. Modi’s cabinet minister Mahesh Sharma participates in the funeral of a man accused of lynching a Muslim on unproved allegations of eating beef, with the body wrapped in the national flag. The minister also brokers state compensation for the accused man who died after illness in prison. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh characterises Muslims rendered refugees by hate attacks in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 and who therefore took refuge in a Muslim majority town not as victims but as people who harass Hindu girls. And he roars that they will be taught who has drunk his mother’s milk.
Several hundred young protestors in Kashmir are blinded with pellets fired by security forces. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh justifies the extra-judicial killing of eight Muslim men charged with terror crimes, asking whether the state should be feeding them chicken biryani in prison instead. The list is endless and unrelenting. Through all of this, Modi maintains a sage-like silence, with never a public reprimand. When his defence minister, no less, declares that he has no patience with a nuclear policy that pledges India not to resort to first-use nuclear aggression, the prime minister just days later describes the minister as one of the “nine jewels” of his cabinet.
None of this prevents world leaders from warmly embracing and endorsing him, including Obama, quickly developing an amnesia about his long record of not just minority-baiting but also the taint that one of the most cruel pogroms of massacring Muslim people occurred under his watch. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also makes a host of appointments to all universities, educational and cultural bodies of national importance of persons mostly very mediocre but with an unabashed history of opposition to India’s secular and pluralist traditions and constitution, thereby dismantling their liberal character. He also surgically enfeebles all institutions of public accountability. Only the most recent is the unprecedented appointment to India’s apex human rights body, the National Human Rights Commission, of an active politician of his party. Any dissent with the government’s political and cultural agenda, economic policy or militaristic postures is savagely attacked as anti-national. Bludgeoning dissenters with sedition charges and left-leaning students with right-wing student violence on universities has become a norm. Blocking funding clearances and launching both character assassination and tax enquiries against dissenting civil society organisations is routine.
The Indian experience
In the light of India’s experience since Modi’s election, what can American people look forward to in the coming months and years under their newly elected leader? He will be accepted and legitimised by world leaders, despite his boasts of abusing women, his racist barbs, his environmental irresponsibility and military adventurism. He will carefully appoint to key positions men and women both mediocre and small-minded. His early appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist is a sign of the way the wind is blowing. Bannon is avowedly extreme right wing, and has espoused racist sympathies on a number of platforms. He is the owner of Breitbart media, an ultra-right platform that openly espouses racist beliefs. There is already a surge in hate crimes, with 100 reported the day after Trump’s election and 440 in subsequent days between November 8 and 14, targeting people of colour, Muslims, LGBTs and women. A high-school student felt emboldened to write to a Muslim teacher advising her to hang herself with her hijab, saying it is not allowed any more, and signing off as America. Graffiti has come up on walls screaming “Black Lives Don’t Matter”. The licence to racist, Islam phobic and homophobic discrimination and violence will undoubtedly persist throughout Donald Trump’s tenure. The genie of hate has been released by Trump in his campaign from the bottle, and cannot be pushed back even if Trump wishes to. It did not in India: it has only been fanned and nurtured with each passing month.
Alexis Okeowo, a staffer with The New Yorker, writes of calling her parents, coloured people in Montgomery, Alabama, to make sure they were being more cautious than usual about where they pumped their gas, where they bought their groceries, whom they decided to talk to. Her Nigerian-born father immigrated to Alabama as a college student, in the 1970s. “It wasn’t unusual to see KKK rallies on the street then, he told me, but he tried to block out the threat as best he could. We will get through these next four years, he went on, just as black people got through more difficult circumstances. He wasn’t wrong: the harassment of recent days is familiar to many African-Americans. The tragedy lies in the fact that many of us thought we had left the prospect of mass terror behind.”
Okeowo’s words so painfully echo to me the many ways that Muslim people have learned to live as second-class citizens in Modi’s India. The American people will have to gear up to endure a long bleak winter of hate, in the way the Indian people are living through a blistering long summer of hate.
Through this, what lessons have we learnt in India? It is imperative that the American people do not allow hatred and bigotry to get routinised into a new normal that would have been morally and politically unacceptable in the past. Solidarity with and between people of colour, religious, ethnic and sexual minorities, women, poor and dispossessed people, immigrants and working class people must be forged and strengthened. Public institutions must be defended against assaults. Public vigilance must never slacken. Never stop resisting wrong. Public dissent should be seen as the highest public duty that cannot be suppressed, even if it is stigmatised as unpatriotic, suppressed, attacked and persecuted. We should declare and forge our ways of loving our country, our people and all people. And above all, in these times of normalising hate, a new imagination must be nurtured, of people of difference within and across borders bound together by love and respect.