US President Donald Trump, right, and PM Narendra Modi at the Oval Office of the White House | File photo: Win McNamee/Pool via Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump, right, and PM Narendra Modi at the Oval Office of the White House | File photo: Win McNamee/Pool via Bloomberg
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This week saw some remarkable political manoeuvring from US President Donald Trump. The question is, what do we make of his “go back” tweets on the four Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar? Is it the new normal in US politics, where accusations of racism fly thick and fast and where not-so-racist House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prefers aligning with the extreme-Left against a more-racist Trump?

When Nancy Pelosi herself was called out for racism a few days back by the “squad” – the four progressive Congresswomen as they are known popularly – Trump swung to Pelosi’s defence insisting she wasn’t racist. This was followed up in rapid succession by a series of tweets attacking the squad, asking them to go back to where they came from.

Predictably, Nancy Pelosi, who had been at the receiving end of the squad only a few days prior, was forced to swing to the squad’s defence. While Trump is difficult to predict, being the political animal he is, it’s hard to believe that his defence of Pelosi came from the goodness of his heart. Rather he was probably using his most accomplished weapon, the Twitter dog whistle, to thin the Democrats even further. In this, he seems to be mirroring a strategy that Narendra Modi used to great effect in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez | Commons

Also read: Rahul Gandhi must decide if Congress is a European NGO or a party in nationalist India


The Right strategy

The basic assumption of this strategy is you get people with limited mass appeal, then the media amplifies it into a concocted national appeal, and then, these niche celebrities end up costing the Left heavily in elections with the cons outweighing the pros.

How does this play out in real life? Remember Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid, Gurmehar Kaur, et al? All of them were unheard of – nobodies. Yet, arrests and Twitter troll attacks ensured that their popularity skyrocketed in a short span of time. Soon, they had Twitter blue ticks as well and their follower count saw a sharp rise.

The Indian media, forever seeking a new leader to rally around, given Rahul Gandhi’s abysmal failure in the 2014 elections, posited these youngsters as the icons of a new India –an India that was talking Western, post-nation state political paradigms. This may have resonated with a certain minuscule NDTV-watching, Indian Express-reading, English-speaking elite who identify with a post-Westphalian model and see more in common with Munich than Muzaffarpur.

However, the vast majority of Indians probably identify better with Muzaffarpur or similar towns. They, like middle classes anywhere, are economically ascendant, aspirational, mostly traditional for whom the ‘imagined identity’ that is India, is territorial, deeply nationalistic and sacred (Bharat Mata).

With them, slogans like “Azadi” and “War, not Pakistan, killed my dad” simply aren’t going to fly. So, while many of them would normally vote for the old Congress, and it’s nationalist shibboleths, these slogans are a bridge too far, leading to a rejection of the Kanhaiya Kumar types.

Shehla Rashid, Kanhaiya kumar and Jignesh Mevani at yuva hunkar rally
File photo of Shehla Rashid, Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani at Yuva Hunkar rally | @jigneshmevani80

Also read: Why Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is in danger of morphing into a clueless NGO


The wrong Left turn

Rahul Gandhi himself, exhibiting every intellectual stereotype of being a one-man European NGO, forgot that the Congress’ legitimacy itself was based on a nationalistic struggle for Independence that had made Gandhi’s contemporaries like Rabindranath Tagore deeply uncomfortable.

Egged on by vacuous op-eds urging a further Leftward shift, whatever little electability the Congress had evaporated when Rahul Gandhi and his minions decided to identify with these 21st-century European norms and their Gonfaloniere in India.

To note, none of the Congress old (or indeed middle) guard went consorting with the Shehlas and the Gurmehars of the world. In the end, for the electorate, the Congress’ Left turn and identification with un-electables was more fatal than Modi’s lacklustre economy.


Also read: Alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this Indian-origin man is out to change US politics


The data test

The US case is slightly different. Unlike India, The US is heavily industrialised. Also unlike India where opinion polls have high error probability and decisions are seldom data driven, the US is all data.

The industrialised ‘rust belt’, where Trump’s appeal was strongest, along with the south tend to be deeply nationalistic. Nationalism in the US has never been delegitimised as it had been in post-Second World War Europe.

While it is safe to say that large parts of the East and West Coast do see themselves as more European, what they don’t seem to understand is that even in the two geographical extremities, precisely because nationalism was never delegitimised, the idea of America’s powerful destiny and uniqueness remain strong.

This divide between the liberal nationalists and the Euro-style ultra-liberal socialists in the East and West Coast, is the root of the difference between the new age “squad”, whose popularity is niche, and the older Pelosi generation, who have a broader pan-national vision and acceptability.


Also read: Indian leaders are testing controversial economic ideas of American politicians


For example, a recent leaked internal poll of the Democratic party swing voters showed that Ilhan Omar and Ocasio-Cortez had a mere 9 per cent and 22 per cent approval rating. Socialism was viewed favourably by 18 per cent respondents, and unfavourably by 69 per cent.

The negative responses to two of the most prominent members of the squad are no better nationally. Omar and Cortez’s approval ratings were at 25 per cent and 33 per cent, and negatives significantly greater at 34 per cent and 41 per cent respectively (the much-dreaded immigration and customs enforcement – ICE— had a higher approval rating). In short, the national negative rating for the squad is significant.

What Trump seems to be doing is galvanising the radical Left around the unelectable squad, cannibalising support from the more electable, centre-Left older Democrats. In doing so, he is making the Democrats alienate their swing voters.

Democrats are alarmed, but given what Trump pulled off this week, are reluctant to undermine the party. If this hypothesis is correct, then it would seem Trump and Modi have the same playbook: taint the electable opposition by trapping them into playing second fiddle to the un-electables. If that is the case, then like Modi, Trump is headed to a victory with a bigger margin and the Democrats are waltzing into a trap, eyes wide open, but completely helpless.

The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.

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9 Comments Share Your Views

9 COMMENTS

  1. Modi and Trump both have my respect and support . Two entirely different men but both with a vision and a plan to make their country better . My personal observation is the world is going to hell in a hand basket and hopefully these two leaders will find common ground and friendship .

  2. Given the blue wave of 2018 in which Democrats captured 40 more seats and thus the House it is safe to guess that Trump will lose the popular vote by even bigger margin this time than the 3 million fewer votes he got last time. This time he should get 6 – 9 million fewer popular votes than the Democrat’s nominee. Ironically he may still win the electoral college votes and thus a second term as election will again be decided by handful of midwestern states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Outside the Midwest there are few swing states, most important of them Florida. The rest of the states are blue or red in color and we know which way they will vote. The writer is also wrong about the influence of Congress women Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Ilhan Omar will have on the presidential election, and they themselves should have no problem getting reelected in their own Congressional districts.

  3. The similarities between Trump and Modi are indeed frightening. Ethic chauvinism and extreme rightism seem to be the order of the day. The world is the poorer for it.

  4. President Trump may well win a second term next year. However, no US President in living memory has used the language he does, ten fibs a day, on average, or sought to undo halting progress made over decades towards a less racially divided America. It will take a long time for the United States – or even the world, which is affected so much by the actions of an American President without having any say in his election – to recover from his depredations.

    • you have clearly drunk the kool-aid. The heightened racial tensions in America started with the constant everyday drum beat on identity politics by the left co-opted fully by the Democrats. Please keep in mind, Indian americans have to work hard to earn everything they get and dont get any quotas or affirmative action help in anything despite being one of the smallest minorities. If anything apparently Asian americans are too successful on their own, so Harvard’s and other colleges now discriminate against our children primarily because there are “too many Asians” in these places, nevermind meritocracy.
      I think Abhijit is wrong though about the swing voters. I think there is enough dislike of Trump, it is very unclear he will get anywhere near the majority of swing voters. He will likely end up with his base vote and not much else. But as they say 1 year is a long time in politics. we will see what happens

  5. Glad that officially-charged Mr “Anti-national” has joined The Print®, run by the perennially-pressed Mr “Coupta” Ji (again, words of his sympathisers across the ‘pop-Interweb’, not mine).

    Welcome aboard!

    And oy vey! This author has finally realised the Republic of India turned into after 1st year, is and will be: A “Turd World”.
    Now, the only difference between the “Glorious Land” of Uncle Sam and “Mother Aryavarth” is privatized “heroes of the [HELPLESS] Mother” aka military, and NAGRI being the ‘NRA of India’. Maybe the Fiscal Conservatism can ensure that as well, no? 😏
    I can’t wait! Glad that Mr “Iyerval” thinks that after becoming the literal shithole, the only future lies ahead for the country of “Mother India” is of “Aryavarth”, a metaphorical shithole — as well. Then why not radicalise the whole system and adopt the model of Switzerland as well, eh? I’m sure it’s gonna do even more wonders. Damn the contribution towards rescuing the Planet from turning into an inhabitable shithole for our descendants, let the mythologies be borne out by collectively earning the reward for Karma of the overwhelming-majority of H.S.S, why should we care? We aren’t gonna be alive till then but either already turned into ashes way earlier or simply, our corpses rotting into the mud (dependent upon whichever ‘social creed’ we follow). Huh? Poor tribes*! ☺️

    • Aryavarth? You apparently have been living in a cave since indian independence. As of today the reality of Indian laws is that it is a Shithole Shariavarth! As of today one particular set of people adhering to one religion get their own personal laws based on their religious texts and principles. Guess what religion that is! Not the majority Hindus, Not minority christians or Sikhs or Buddhists or Dogras or any other religious minority or majority. It is only the ones chosen by Almighty Allah, that get the privilege of having their own Muslim Personal Laws in a “Secular” India. Muslims of India are right about inequality. It is everyone BUT muslims who are treated unequal by the Indian Penal code, so muslims can have a special status and thus appeased. Yet here they are constantly complaining about Hindutva and Hindus. Sometimes it is hard for people to accept a victory and be satisfied with all the spoils that they have got!

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