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Will Modi and Trump learn the right lessons from recent poll defeats?

While most Indians were observing recent domestic political developments; with surprise defeats for the ruling BJP in its pocket boroughs and a likelihood of the opposition uniting against the Party for the 2019 national elections, writes Tridivesh Singh Maini

Mar 18, 2018
By Tridivesh Singh Maini
While most Indians were observing recent domestic political developments; with surprise defeats for the ruling BJP in its pocket boroughs and a likelihood of the opposition uniting against the Party for the 2019 national elections; those interested in US politics would have closely followed the result of a Congressional by- election in Pennsylvania (18th District) where Democratic Party Candidate Connor Lamb (a 33 year old marine) defeated the Republican Candidate Rick Saccone in a close contest.
For the Democrats, this was a significant win after the triumph of Senator Douglas Jones in Alabama. Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate Seat in Alabama (a Republican stronghold).
US President Donald Trump, who is quick to comment on virtually every issue, on twitter, remained silent on the 18th District result.
According to Atlantic Magazine, the US President did state, at a private fundraiser, that Lamb’s stance on key economic issues was akin to his own: "The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis,” Trump said. “He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.’”
Lamb conservative on social and economic issues?
Trump’s views were echoed by a number of other Republicans.  House Speaker Paul Ryan called Democrat Lamb a "pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative."
There is some truth in Trump’s assertions, because Lamb did support his imposition of tariffs on aluminium and steel imports. Lamb said, we have to “take some action to level the playing field." Even on issues like gun control and abortion, his views were right of the conventional Democrats, though not quite with the Republicans.
Irrespective of what Trump says, the fact is that he had won the state by 20 points in the 2016 US Presidential election and his economic agenda had found strong resonance. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had campaigned for Saccone. Significantly, in the last two Congressional elections, Democrats had not even bothered to field candidates in PA18.
The announcement to impose tariffs on Aluminium and Steel was made one week before the election to reach out to large sections of ‘blue collared’ workers. Trump would have thought that he would be able to regain his popularity, but the results show that Trump’s ‘ultra nationalism’ and economically inward looking policies by themselves will not suffice. He will need to change his style of functioning and not keep sacking his cabinet and other colleagues. 
Republican Speaker Paul Ryan called this verdict a ‘wake up call’. Other Republicans have been more forthright in their analysis of the defeat.
Doug Heye, Republican strategist and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said: ‘There is a very real problem facing Republicans in the months ahead and that problem is Donald Trump's approval rating,’
Lamb’s victory may also result in some changes within the Democrats. Lamb has been pitching for a change in leadership and does not get along well with Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives.
“I have said, and I continue to say, that I think we need new leadership at the top of both parties in the House,”
Pelosi was quick to deny that Lamb’s criticism of her had anything to do with the outcome, saying, "I don't think that really had that much impact on the race,"…. "He won. The 'D' next to his name was very significant."
There are clear messages for the opposition, of course, in both the US and India; with right wing nationalism having failed to address substantive issues, the voter is looking for other, new options -- leaders with imaginative ideas, outside the cozy club.
If one were to specifically look at India, the fence sitters may not be particularly happy with the prevailing order, but does that imply that they will automatically tilt towards the opposition?
The politics of doles and sops will not work, a progressive social agenda, which is in sync with the diverse ethos of this country, has to be complemented by a pro-reform economic agenda (which is inclusive and sensitive to the concerns of the poorest) 
What is clear is that Trump’s re-election in 2020 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in 2019, are not done deals. Despite the recent UP bypoll reverses, there is a higher probability of Modi being re-elected than Trump.
It remains to be seen whether the current far right narrative, which is a lethal cocktail of inward looking economic thinking and conservative social policies, can be countered effectively, and defeated at the hustings by a progressive forward looking agenda.
Will India and the US take the lead in reversing the existing order? 
(The author is associated with the Jindal Global University. He can be contacted at

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