By Bhaskar Chakravorti
This is a tale of two septuagenarians; I hope they never meet. One is the country of India as an independent democratic nation. The other is the American president, a reminder that independent democracy provides no guarantee for its product. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington DC, he extended an invitation to the Trump parivaar to visit India. Ivanka Trump accepted right away and recently the details of her visit have been re-confirmed by the official medium of this White House — over a tweet. While Ivanka’s appearance would be harmless enough, it would be best if Daddy chooses to stay away.
Daddy’s appearances elsewhere have followed a worrisome pattern: Wherever principles of tolerance and civility are already under attack, Daddy’s appearance tips the balance, making a bad situation worse. The craziest elements feel empowered to do crazier things. Given that the kettle of intolerance is coming to a boil in India, a Trump senior visit would not be a good thing. Consider three theatres of activity: America, Saudi Arabia and Poland. Each is a country where civil society was already under siege before Trump stepped on to the stage.
In keeping with the slogan, consider America first. The US has been struggling with growing tensions involving race relations, deep political divisions and anti-Islamic rhetoric, and much of it had been nearing a tipping point in the years since Obama’s election. Enter Trump; his election rallies unleashed the beast within. Hateful speech and action became de rigueur at Trump rallies. Intolerance has mushroomed around the country. A telling statistic comes from Trump’s home base, New York City, right after his election.
In an interview last November, New York’s police commissioner cited a 31 per cent increase in hate crimes when compared to the same time from the previous year. He specifically pointed out that crimes directed at Muslims more than doubled, while anti-Semitic crimes had gone up by 9 per cent. In recent days, the historic college-town of Charlottesville, Virginia, was the scene of white supremacists running amok, emboldened by the ascendance of Trumpism; of course, the fact that Trump took his own sweet time to lay the blame squarely on racist bigotry helped re-affirm to the bigots that he has their backs.
For a feel for the Trump effect on regional tensions, let’s fast-forward to his first foreign visit: Saudi Arabia. The itinerary is marked by much bonhomie and revelry, including a traditional Arab ardah, a dance with sabres in which Trump participated but seemed out of step with his hosts given the unfamiliar rhythm. However, the synchronicity returned with the real sabre-rattling that followed. Saudi Arabia along with several other countries, including the UAE, Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain got busy after the visit to cut ties with Qatar, precipitating a crisis in a region that is in no need of fresh crises.
The UAE Foreign Minister confirmed that Trump’s visit was the trigger. To show, no doubt, that he was dancing in step, Trump tweeted a day later: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
Fast-forward again. We are now a month into the Qatar crisis, Trump is in a different part of the world, Poland, where the populist Law and Justice party mastermind, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, shares his fondness for authoritarianism. The party has also bussed-in people to ensure a rapturous crowd for Trump’s speech in Warsaw’s iconic Krasinski Square. Trump reads his tele-prompted speech pitting the West against the barbarians everywhere else, moves on and the party autocrats move in: The government passes legislation that would give politicians absolute control over the judicial system. Supreme Court judges would be required to step down, giving the justice minister the power to decide who should stay on; politicians would control who sits on the council that nominates Supreme Court judges; the justice minister would select and dismiss judges in lower courts at will. The catalyst? Once again, the rascals pointed to Trump and his professed admiration for the ruling party’s autocratic ways.
Now let’s talk about India. It has been 70 years of the Indian experiment and, sadly, there has been a resurgence of the intolerance that accompanied India’s Independence. Far from “Incredible India”, news headlines internationally suggest “inedible India”: The worst aspects of humanity or its lack thereof that were on full display during Partition are slowly but surely making their way back into the mainstream. Today, the traces of that historic inhumanity are still evident as stories of beef lynchings and mob attacks on Muslims have taken the place of stories that should be about an emerging nation with the greatest potential for growth in its history.
The Modi administration has presided over more than 60 incidents of cow-related mob violence. While there has been some tsk-tsk-ing from the prime minister’s office about this, what is one to make of the elevation of the warrior-priest, Yogi Adityanath, according to whom India’s more than 170 million Muslims are “a crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped”?
It has been 70 years of freedom from colonial rule, but freedom of expression appears to be back on the endangered list. The raid on the NDTV founders, ostensibly, for an unpaid bank loan, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The documentary, The Argumentative Indian, featuring the Nobel laureate who shall not go quietly into the night, has words such as “cow” and “Gujarat” deemed a tad too argumentative by the censors. Of course, not all expression is suppressed by Indian authorities. BJP MP and actor, Paresh Rawal, can attest to that after being forced to delete a tweet suggesting that Arundhati Roy, novelist and bête noire of Hindu chauvinism, be tied to the bonnet of a jeep.
It has been 70 years since India’s tryst with destiny; yet today India ranks fourth out of 198 countries on a “Social Hostilities Index” created by the Pew Research Center that analyses many indicators, including crimes motivated by religious hatred, mob and communal violence, religion-related terrorist groups, using force against certain religious groups, the harassment of women for violating religious dress codes and violence over conversion.
To be sure, it takes far more than a mere 70 years to eradicate intolerance and bigotry and social division. After all, these have all been part and parcel of the complex history of the Subcontinent for millennia. It is frustrating to note that the “new normal” of India as promised back in 1947 as a secular democracy dreamt of by idealists has been transformed into a new normalisation of intolerance.
Now imagine a visit from Donald Trump, maybe even a speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Imagine crowds bussed in from Yogi Adityanath’s UP — borrowing a page from the Polish playbook — and ceremonial sabre-rattling dances with tridents instead of Arab swords, with due credit for the idea to the Saudis, despite the fact that the tridents would probably be pointed at their fellow Muslims. Just imagine the licence the Trumpian imprimatur would provide to those who are already itching to do more mischief, much like what just transpired with white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump and independent India might share a 70 years-plus life span. However, the latter can still right itself; it is on track to soon be home to the world’s youngest population, and one can hope that the youth can transcend history and dream of a different — truly tolerant and secular — future, one with more opportunities for social and economic mobility. Let the young democracy celebrate its 70 years free from the 70 year-olds, Trump and other poisoned politicians, who carry the burden of bigotry of the past with them. If Ivanka — and even her hapless brothers — visit, I think that would be just about as many Trumps that India can currently handle.
Indian Express, August 22, 2017