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The Orange and the Saffron: Why a Friendship Between Trump and Modi is Cause for Concern

By Kavitha Rajagopalan

One week before the U.S. election, I argued that the 45th president should make his or her first official visit to India.

I was so certain that the next U.S. leader would be a former secretary of state with an extensive personal and professional record of action on civil and minority rights that I felt comfortable offering a fairly simple geopolitical analysis: India has been a strategic ally in addressing Islamist militancy in its region and could be a key partner in many other critical global issues this century. But the bitter and contentious election delivered us Donald Trump as our president-elect. And now I want to take back everything I said. A strong allegiance between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not to be welcomed but feared.

Amid the many pre- and post-election think pieces that located Trump country in rural America and populated it with uneducated white men, many of us watched in bemusement as a small and passionate collection of immigrants and people of color applied their vigor and wealth toward supporting the demagogue. Many of these people had fled oppressive, authoritarian regimes themselves, we marveled, so why would they want to see such a regime here? The widely publicized and foolishly laughed-at Hindus for Trump extravaganza last October (which featured, among other spectacles, a Bollywood-style show pitting U.S. and Indian soldiers against light-saber wielding “terrorists,” images of Trump as an avatar of a Hindu god, and Trump himself lighting a ceremonial oil lamp) points us to a particularly insidious motivator for many Indians both in the U.S. and in India: Islamophobia. Watching these events play out, we should have been worried instead.

As India’s military action in Kashmir continues without any end in sight, nationalistic Islamophobia seems to be reaching a fever pitch in the country. Ostensibly launched to rout Islamist militancy in the long-contested region, India’s latest intervention has been marred by human rights violations and resisted by a growing number of Kashmiris. Meanwhile, Islamophobic and anti-Pakistani sentiment flares daily in Indian news media and pop culture outlets. It is understandable that such a painful and brutal history as India and Pakistan have with each other should trigger high emotions among Indian citizens, but the national leadership hasn’t exactly reined in hysteria the could easily transform into incitement against Muslims, as it has in the past. India has a long and recurring history of communal violence in its cities and, although Modi was officially cleared on suspicions of inciting riots and violence against Muslims in the city of Ahmedabad in 2002 during his term as Chief Minister of the state of Gujrat, a genocide and subsequent pogrom did take place on his watch. This was the culminating moment of the prime minister’s lifelong affiliation with Hindu nationalist organizations and movements. To this day, he has never issued any official apology or publicly expressed any regret or remorse over what happened. The closest he has ever come was in a media interview in which he irritably said he felt “pity” for the Muslims who were murdered, as one might feel at seeing a dog harmed.

Modi rose to national power in 2014 with a campaign that, like Trump’s, spoke to economic anxieties plaguing the country’s middle class in an era of widening inequality and increased cost of living, with no small measure of pride and resentment over what many felt should be the nation’s rightful place in the international order. Like the next American president, his rhetoric hit nationalist notes heavily and saffron-washed the complex Indian social landscape with overtly Hindu language and imagery. India is undoubtedly an important global power, but it still struggles with deeply entrenched human rights abuses and social fissures. It is home to the largest number of enslaved people in the world, high-caste militants regularly unleash horrific acts of violence on Dalits (including Dalit women and children), and hostility toward Muslims is widespread even as few Hindus are informed about the true nature and diversity of India’s Muslim communities.

Modi was one of the first world leaders to offer hearty congratulatory messages to the new president-elect, tweeting, “We look forward to working with you closely to take Indian-US bilateral ties to a new height.” Hindu nationalists in India cheered Trump on throughout 2015 and 2016 and greeted news of Trump’s election with elation, taking to the streets to dance and celebrate. Apparently, members of the ultranationalist and often-militant Hindu Sena offered sweets to a poster of Trump’s face in New Delhi. This convergence is deeply troubling. At the very least, Trump’s election validates the more aggressive Islamophobic elements in the world’s largest democracy, empowering them to conflate Islam with terrorism and justify nationalist acts of violence against a religious minority. At worst, it globalizes and normalizes the unique Hindu nationalist version of anti-Muslim hatred as part of a sleek, internationalized form of Islamophobia increasingly viewed as a global norm and a universal ethic.

Perhaps more than any other diaspora, Indian communities are global and interconnected, and they exist in both real and virtual space. The move toward legitimizing Hindu nationalist Islamophobia in India was troubling enough before we saw it deployed to influence democratic processes in the U.S. and other countries. Where a different 45th president might have been able to embrace India as an ally in fighting Islamist militancy in its neighborhood while also exhorting it to temper violence and hatred toward Indian Muslims or Bangladeshi labor migrants, Trump will not. Not only will he see no distinction between vulnerable Muslim populations in India, Kashmiri resistance fighters, Islamic State militants, Syrian refugees, and suburban Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, he will also fan the flames of Hindu militancy in the country that will soon be home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

Meanwhile, as India struggles through an unnecessary currency crisis (begging one to ask in more paranoid moments if this wasn’t a calculated move toward a state of emergency, which is a state of freedom to any leader with authoritarian tendencies), the U.S. president-elect met last week with three Indian real-estate executives who are building a Trump-branded residential complex in Mumbai. The meeting is one of several incidents that raise serious questions about conflicts of interest in a sitting president potentially using his office to benefit his personal business—or possibly even allowing business deals to enable foreign governments to curry favor with his administration. Modi, who is facing growing pressure to deliver on his 2014 campaign promises of economic growth, job creation, and improved quality of life for all Indians, could use just such a friend.

Of course, a massive number of Indians are concerned about and even fearful of what a Trump presidency means for India and the world as a whole. Author and Indian MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted during the long and bitter night of tallying electoral results that the election had not done a great deal of good for U.S. soft power around the world, and later commented that he was afraid of “negativism” unleashed by the Trump campaign. The Indian intelligentsia he belongs to know of what they speak; over the past two years, they’ve seen significant erosions to free speech and press freedom, along with mounting instances of censorship. But India’s leader and the many xenophobes with authoritarian tendencies in his employ are thrilled. And we should be very, very worried.



Kavitha Rajagopalan is a World Policy Institute fellow and author of Muslims in Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West (Rutgers University Press, 2008).

[Photo courtesy of Jasveer10]


Anonymous's picture
People like you do not

People like you do not understand the difference between politics and religion. You look at politics through religion to criticize the political outfits. Islam is a religion for propaganda but in true sense it is very hard to separate their religion from their politics. If you fail to understand this you will never solve the Islamist problem. If you can live in Middle East for a few years and then start writing, it will do a world of good. About currency. Do you know that about one fourth of 16 lac crores currency is counterfeit. This had effected the poor people the most because they can only earn from their sweat and blood. The business people and people in speculative business get most of the hard currency. I hope you have the sense to understand this. Please identify the problem and suggest a solution then find faults of the one being worked at. Thanks for for you wrote.

Anonymous's picture
Great analysis

Great analysis

Anonymous's picture
In Response to your Opinion

Greetings Ms Rajagopalan, I would like to hazard a guess that you do not currently live in India, and are commenting on our state of affairs from an external standpoint. There are a few things that I would like to make clear. 1) India's military action in Kashmir. Yes, if you would like to start comparing police and a paramilitary force we call he Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Central Reserve Police Force as military action. 2003 Iraq was military action , 2001 Afghanistan was military action, operation Zarb-e-Azb (Google it , it's Pakistani) was military action. The state of Jammu and Kashmir to the East of the Line of Control is an internationally recognised territory of India. Not Pakistan, as much as they would like you to believe. The British allowed every Princely State to choose their future in the Indian Independence Act of 1945. The ruler of Jammu and Kashmir signed tbe instrument of Seccession to India. Pakistan invaded the Princely State in 1947 illegally, and our forced defended. Yes their people never got an unbiased voice as to their future. But Pakistan never let us find out did they? You are likely to quote UNSC Reso 47 , that stated that a plebiscite be held. However it also wanted Pakistan to withdraw presence from Kashmir, something they denied from happening after ceding territory to China. 2) There has been no incident in my country where a war with Pakistan has led to mass persecution of Muslims. Ours is a secular nation, where despite your claims, the percentage of Muslims rises healthily. Not Pakistan, where the percentage of Hindus has fallen to almost 1%. In defence of my statement , I would like you to view an interview between Me Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the AIMIm, and a mouthpiece of Indian Muslims, talk to a Pakistani interviewer, where he stated that Indian Muslims share no allegiance with Pakistani Muslims, especially in time of conflict, and that Mr Owaisi, "made his choice in 1947". Contrary to what you'd like your readers to believe, Islamophobia in this country is actively shunned by the multitudes of social groups in our free nation, unlike a certain neighbour of ours. 3) There is a stark difference between a friendship between the Prime Minister of India ,H.E. Narendra Modi and the President - Elect of USA, Mr Donald Trump and a friendship between Modi and Trump. I wish you can understand the difference and in wishing congratulations, PM Modi was only enacting his foreign policy. We couldn't shun Trump and his policies in our country less (Yes contrary to what you think , we aren't "bhakts") 4) Mr Modi didn't win because he appealed to the racism prevalent in society, and was anti establishment. He has to be compared to Ms Hillary Clinton more. He promised growth, he promised transparency , he had a track record of running his state successfully for three terms. He couldn't get a more "from the establishment" image. Yet he appealed to the aspirations of the educated middle class, unlike your comparison to the uneducated whites that elected Trump in. Unfortunately, our country votes more on caste than it does religion, and Hinduism has seen a lot of Casteism. (Exploited sickeningly by the BSP, and now a very large number of parties desperate to find something better than "intolerance" to criticise Modi's India) 5) Ah, the classic demonetisation leads to national Emergency. Unfortunately the very fact that I found this article if yours on Facebook , proves you very wrong. You clearly have not read a single account of what transpired under Indira Gandhi's National Emergency to stay in power. (I don't count Mr Tharoors views on them, he's written a book comparing congress supremos to heroes in the Mahabharata) Gandhi's Emergency implied arrests of all opposition members, movements and protesters. The army were ordered to conduct arbitrary arrests. The Press was shut. There was no relief in the courts. She placed the Emergency in a time of Famine. And this lasted two years. Oh wait. 500 and 1000 rs notes got cancelled! For 50 days exchange. EMERGENCY EMERGENCY EMERGENCY. I honestly find my daily humour nowadays out if seeing the opposition leader's comments. As much as we would like to see Arvind Kejriwal (I can't believe I said I supported him once) behind bars, it's not happened. So theres no Emergency, research better. The Press couldn't be freer. Our courts couldn't be more proactive , our Government is finally showing life. Our GDP has been consistently better than the congress' Fake 8% (it was more around 5 actually). And unlike the Americans , we will continually reject those calling these the darkest days in our country's history, for we do not want more leaders elected in, who refuse to spend a penny for public good, and prefer taking 1.07 Lakh Crores in one Scam from the people ( Oh for comparison , the total amount of Black Money targeted in India by demonetisation is 15.45 Lakh Crores. Food for thought)
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