Modi's India finds its level in Trump

Published: Feb 24, 2020, 05:00 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

Pew Research Centre's survey shows India is among the top 5 nations confident of Trump 'doing the right thing regarding world affairs'

People fly a kite with portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, ahead of Trump’s maiden visit to India, in Bengaluru, on Sunday. Pic /PTI
People fly a kite with portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, ahead of Trump’s maiden visit to India, in Bengaluru, on Sunday. Pic /PTI

picI asked a Turkish shopkeeper in Singapore, two years ago, what he thought of Recep Erdogan, the Turkish president. He blinked and laughed and said, "Erdogan is not as big a crazy as Trump." The shopkeeper's derisive remark popped out of my memory as I heard the news that the American President Donald Trump, whose trip to India begins today, will hold a roadshow and address an expected crowd of 1.25 lakh in Ahmedabad. Such a mammoth gathering undeniably reflects Prime Minister Narendra Modi's adulatory following in Gujarat and the Bharatiya Janata Party's formidable organisational skills.

Yet the Indian, unlike the Turkish shopkeeper, is quite approving of Trump, which is testified to by the Pew Research Centre's most recent survey, released in January, of the opinion in 32 countries regarding the United States leadership. Against Trump's global disapproval rating of 64 per cent, 56 per cent of Indians said they were confident he would do the "right thing regarding world affairs" and only 15 per cent said he would not; the rest did not have an opinion. Trump's approval rating in India, significantly, has grown by 16 percentage points over what was registered in 2017.

Just four countries — Israel, the Philippines, Nigeria and Kenya — returned a higher approval rating for Trump than India did. Israel's was pegged at 71 per cent, presumably because Trump shifted the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which it recognised as Israel's capital; the Philippines' at 77 per cent, the high driven by the historical ties between that country and the US, which has military bases there. Fifty-eight per cent in Nigeria and 65 per cent in Kenya cheered for Trump, perhaps because they are among the top 10 recipients of US financial assistance.

India, unlike these four countries, has not gained from Trump's presidency, like it did during the tenure of his predecessors — Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. Trump's trade policies are to India's detriment, as is his immigration policy. He did mount pressure on Pakistan to release the Indian Air Force pilot who it had captured after the Balakot strike last year. Yet he has also offered his services to mediate, quite ominously, between India and Pakistan, which he repeated later.
Material interests rather than morality often influence human attitudes and decisions, particularly in foreign affairs. Without substantial gains accruing to us from Trump, it is bewildering why we have not recoiled from Trump's racist, sexist remarks, his xenophobic politics, and his penchant to shatter the American foreign-policy mould he inherited.

It is possible Indians love Trump despite his politics, because of America's soft power, a term academician Joseph S Nye coined. As opposed to the hard power represented by the military might, Nye outlined the advantage of soft power, "If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want." From Nye's perspective, the US is a hegemonising power — people have bought into American values, subliminally identify America's interests as their own, and adhere to them without Washington having to wield the stick.

Soft power flows from culture, political values such as democracy and human rights, and pursuit of those policies perceived to also facilitate the interest of others. America's soft power is enhanced manifold as it is considered the land of opportunity — economically and intellectually — which has lured 4.5 million Indians into making it their home. Every middle class Indian, in cosmopolitan cities, has a family member, or a friend, or an acquaintance, or knows of someone who has settled in the US.

Trump is temporary, America is permanent, or so the Indians participating in the Pew survey must have thought. The survey showed that 60 per cent of Indians have a favourable opinion of the US, or just four per cent above that for Trump. By contrast, most other countries were extremely disapproving of Trump and quite approving of the US. For instance, 71 per cent in Canada and 67 per cent in the United Kingdom disapproved of Trump, but 51 per cent in the former and 57 per cent in the latter had a favourable opinion of the US. The approval rating for Trump in even Israel was 12 per cent lower than its positive opinion of the US, and in Ukraine, under pressure from Russia, 29 per cent lower.

The Pew survey found that rightwing voters in Europe bumped up the approval rating for Trump, who is, as Nye worryingly told the influential Foreign Affairs magazine, "exacerbating the polarisation in society and making American society less attractive."

The Pew Research did not segregate Indian supporters of Trump by ideologies. Yet we know India's politics has shown a remarkable rightwing shift with the rise of Modi, who, like Trump, has mastered the politics of polarisation to acquire a massive following. This has likely ballooned India's approval rating for Trump. Like water, love finds its own level, as India too has in Trump.

The writer is a senior journalist

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