By Arul Louis
When the American Presidential election campaign got underway in 2015, it was unfolding as a 2008 Bangladesh-style poll, a battle of the begums, the dynastic war of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, before Zia’s 2014 election boycott. It was assumed that the 2016 election similarly would be a clash of the Clinton and Bush dynasties, Hillary versus Jeb.
But last week Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States.
What happened? US politics entered another time warp. The 2015 certitude of a Clinton-Bush match-up got derailed and in 2016 the US ended up like India of 2014 with a war of attrition between a dynasty and an upstart politician, with his populist, incendiary style. An outsider.
The Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump race in the US began to look a lot like Gandhi dynasty versus Narendra Modi in India.
The Gandhi/Clinton camps, smug about their lineage, assumed the nation’s leadership was theirs by right.
Muslims and minorities and certain special interests had a central role in the Gandhi/Clinton campaigns in the belief that this line-up can overcome a split majority community.
Modi/Trump and BJP/GOP and anyone who supported them were depicted as deplorable communalists/Islamaphobes and anti-immigrant. And throw in paternalist/sexist for extra effect.
Repeated by voluble sections of the media, the intelligentsia and popular cultural figures, who became the overarching unnuanced message of the Clinton/Gandhi campaign.
This ignored the more general angst of an electorate that was concerned about corruption and economic matters. And they couldn’t all be written off as deplorable communalist or Islamophobic sexists. They just didn’t want the election to be solely about Muslims or immigrants (from Mexico in the US and Bangladeshis through codewords in India).
Modi/Trump also rebelled against their party’s established leadership, which had to fall in line with some exceptions after the elections.
In this mix third personalities emerged: Arvind Kejriwal in India and Bernie Sanders in the US. Both could match the anti-establishment rhetoric of a Modi or a Trump.
Sanders could muscle his way into the Democratic Party and mount a credible challenge to Clinton and force the party to at least acknowledge on paper his economic and social concerns. But a Kejriwal could never get a voice in the dynastic Congress party, leave alone challenge the leadership.
The campaigns in both countries quickly sank into personalised confrontations and name calling while issues faded into background.
Dismissing Modi/Trump with contempt as personalities unfit for office the media pushed itself into a corner. Meanwhile, Modi/Trump managed to get the message out to the base by manipulating the media in their own game.
The Indian media at least was more accurate in its polls, even if it didn’t get Modi’s victory margin right. The US media was left stunned by its own ineptitude.
Modi/Trump during the campaigns and after the elections treated the media, NGOs, activists, the intelligentsia and the culture icons with disdain and cut off their easy access to power and the attendant privilege.
Patriotism is the rallying cry of Modi/Obama. Both have vowed to put their countries first and emphasise private sector-style of management. They are courting businesses at home and abroad to sign on to their agendas of job growth and “Make in India/America.”
Modi/Trump, with outsize egos and strong wills, are exercising strong control over the government.
The media and the defeated sides, meanwhile, continue their relentless, scorch earth campaign — and its not entirely their fault. The victors haven’t reached out to heal the rift across the polarised divide.
And here comes another foray into the time warp. After Indira Gandhi won the 1971 election, the opposition raised the spectre of Soviet interference. She did move closer to the Soviet Union, signing a treaty of friendship that year.
She in turn invoked the “foreign hand,” an allusion to the West, trying to destablise her.
The Democrats and a majority of the Republicans have declared Russian meddling on behalf of Trump was a factor in his victory.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that a man who used to work for a British spy agency put together a dossier of unsubstantiated personal allegations about Trump and this was shared with US intelligence agencies and media to try to derail Trump.
Some Democrats have declared Trump’s election illegitimate and refused to recognise him as President.
After the 1971 election, many in the opposition took the same line against Gandhi. Ultimately the Socialist Raj Narain, the rival in her Lok Sabha constituency, got the courts to annul her election.
Not to make any projections for the US, but that led to Gandhi becoming an outright dictator by declaring a state Emergency in 1975.
Finally a time warp trip to Bangladesh in 2014: Sheikh Hasina’s swearing-in was marred by violent riots. Something similar happened last week in Washington.
(Arul Louis is a correspondent in New York. The views are his own)