Beyond gonorrhoea and cholera
Published in Dawn January 31st, 2017
COMPARISONS have been made between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. They may have several facets of personality and politics in common but their routes to power were entirely different.
Modi’s road to becoming prime minister was enabled by bloodshed and a state that is swamped by a rapacious variant of capitalist ideology that profits from Hindutva. The phlegmatic Manmohan Singh was its misleading poster boy. Trump’s rise to power was strongly resisted, on the other hand, by a subtler corporate system driven by the deep state. Genial Obama was the veneer.
Manmohan Singh, for all his mild manners, classified the country’s most impoverished tribespeople as the biggest security challenge. On behalf of usurious capitalism, he unleashed a military campaign against the forest dwellers in which women continue to be raped and homes uprooted. Some women abused and tortured by the police in Chhattisgarh were in Delhi to share their ordeal on Sunday. Singh unleashed state terror on anti-nuclear villagers who opposed controversial Russian-built nuclear reactors near their southern hamlets, which they fear are potentially worse than Fukushima’s.
Singh prophesied that Modi, if he won, would be a disaster for India. But Modi has only added narrow nationalism and its bloodier prescriptions to the quiver he inherited from Singh. Business tycoons that supported Singh are sworn allies of Modi.
Obama, like his predecessors, dropped bombs at will over Afghanistan, and contrived, in harness with Hillary Clinton, the depredation of a secular Syria and a secular Libya. Trump, albeit from a white supremacist plank, has asked inconvenient questions about the decimation of secular Arab satraps who had successfully kept the lid on a fanatical religious genie. Modi has uncorked the evil spirit of Hindutva, not learning from the tragedy that befell the neighbours when Ziaul Haq let loose Islamic revivalism as a tool of governance.`
Singh and Obama were prophetic about their successors. But they were both accomplices in their rise.
As Singh thought of Modi, Obama too cautioned that Trump would be disastrous for America. Singh and Obama were prophetic about their successors; of that there should be no doubt. But they were both accomplices in their rise. That too is indisputable.
There is a preponderance of embedded journalism in both chest-thumping democracies, embedded meaning lying in bed with the state. As his American cousins had done in Iraq, a BBC journalist, unbelievably, rode astride a tank to liberate Kabul. His Indian counterparts brought the Kargil war into Indian drawing rooms with their helmets on. Images of the bloody war on colour TV, replete with an American-style trail of body bags of fallen soldiers all the way to their usefully filmed funeral scenes helped enliven a genre of nationalism that was barely dormant.
Nationalism thus fanned mutated soon enough to become a scourge for many helmet-embracing journalists, but the penny still doesn’t seem to have dropped. One of them says she loves Kashmir and the Indian army in the same breath but fails to notice the inherent contrariness of her loves. And she also loves capitalism, the Indian TV anchor who left her job recently would say. There is nothing in any of her three loves — Kashmir, army, and capitalism — that reveals a less than robust nationalist bone.
A burgeoning mass of Indians is similarly failing to see the umbilical ties between militarism and communalism, between nationalism and fascism of which India’s rapacious genre of capitalism is an energising force. Adam Smith would have cringed.
Trump’s luck with the media was opposite of Modi’s. CNN and the New York Times have emerged as his most implacable critics in the American media. He struggled for a while even with arch-right-wing Fox News. All were complicit in the tragic unravelling of the secular Iraqi state and earlier in the sacking of Afghanistan. The media sold unverified tales of hidden weapons of mass destruction. Remember?
Trump has said many things that are downright gut-wrenching to any liberal sensibility, but one belief he has held on to would make even his Israeli allies hate him. That’s his criticism of Iraq’s invasion by America.
Trump’s visa restrictions on Muslims, however, are a copyright infringement. Modi excluded Muslim asylum seekers first. Trump is soft on Syria’s Christian refugees to placate a domestic constituency; Modi is wooing Hindu Bangladeshis.
In a world where old problems, new headaches and daily mood swings are all delivered through television, there is a distinct possibility for the masses to be swayed by an absence of reason.
Early experiments showed we could be persuaded to choose a brand of cigarettes by flashing wild stallions, unrelated to the topic, in the backdrop of Marlboro country. Ford cars would leap between rugged hills to woo customers who had to otherwise pass a rigid set of driving tests to get a licence to precisely not try the tricks. Cigarettes cause cancer just as climbing vertical cliffs, if at all possible, would wreck the car if not also kill the driver. But that realisation is a rare and usually delayed intuition. The ‘informed’ choice TV boasts is, more often than not, pure bad advice.
You can’t have a debate with a TV ad. It’s a monologue. Trump and Modi have this in common. They hate to face questions. They avoid news conferences. They both tweet. They give exclusive and by implication friendly interviews. Modi speaks routinely on the radio, which has remained the most compelling means of collaring the masses since the Third Reich.
I am sure Trump will soon be discovering the miracles of the radio. Orwell’s 1984 is selling feverishly across America. The fractious opposition that helped Trump’s rise is now standing up to him. That possibility looks distant in a nuclear-tipped India where the opposition seems more troubled by the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, a democrat, than by Modi, a potential fascist. Julian Assange described Clinton and Trump as a choice between gonorrhoea and cholera. With Europe in right-wing ferment and India in free fall, Assange may soon find it difficult to tell the difference.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.