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What's Really Going On When Leaders Like Trump And Modi 'Turn Around' Their Rhetoric?

The art of political ventriloquism.

29/11/2016 4:28 PM IST | Updated 30/11/2016 8:48 AM IST
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Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Ventriloquism seems to be an efficacious political strategy deployed by leaders who are constrained from expressing their opinions due to various reasons. Listening to Trump's acceptance speech, it seemed that he was suddenly a transformed man, talking about healing wounds, bridging differences and encouraging dialogue. Suddenly, all the divisive and disparaging talk of immigrants, women, Mexicans and Muslims, was conveniently replaced by good grace and civility. Much to the delight of certain sections of the media, particularly those who had taken a position against him, it seemed that the liberal in Trump had finally emerged. But as the old adage goes, appearances do deceive.

[One could analyse] these two figures by whom/who they choose to surround themselves with.

While listening to Trump's speech I was reminded of another speech I had heard almost two and half years ago. In May 2014, the then Prime Minister-elect of India, Narendra Modi, made a speech which was heralded by even those who had earlier opposed him. Modi too shed all his earlier rhetoric, which he had already toned down in the elections, and chose to try and portray himself as a unifying figure who would work for everyone's good without any discrimination. Just like Trump would talk about bringing Americans together to make America great again, Modi spoke of bringing Indians together to make India great again.

Compare the following excerpts:

Modi: I want to tell my fellow Indians that in letter and spirit I will take all Indians with me.

Trump: I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

Modi: Whatever may be the scale of victory, it is our responsibility in government to take everyone along. I need your blessings to achieve this humbly.

Trump: For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people. . . I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.

Modi: In a democracy, there are no enemies but only competitors. That competition ends with elections—sab ka sath, sab ka vikas (with all, development for all).
Trump: To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.

These are definitely not the same people who used nearly every trick in the book to malign and badmouth their opponents while also vilifying certain sections of society in order to consolidate their base vote. Whether it was the spectre of terrorism (by now a universal code word for Muslims), talking about immigrants, or disparaging establishments—both candidates tried to portray themselves as pro-poor and pro-working class. In his acceptance speech, Modi spoke of how "governments are there for the poor" while Trump spoke of the "millions of hard working Americans." Hell, Modi even quoted Bob Dylan at a recent Coldplay concert in India: "The times they are a-changin'."

By throwing their voices, whether due to instrumentality or because their office restrains them, Trump and Modi are able to get their "dummies" to echo their rhetoric.

Given the fact that both candidates had relied on either overt divisive rhetoric or dog-whistle politics, what explained their sudden shift? Of course, there are those who dismiss the election rhetoric as the result of instrumentality. Others have argued that being elected to the highest post serves as a restraint in itself. Yet others think that there might even have been a fundamental shift in their world views and some have put forward the idea that in today's highly globalised world, pressure from the international community would act as a deterrent.

However, perhaps there is another way of looking at the question. One that removes Trump and Modi from the centre of debate and instead analyses these two figures by whom/who they choose to surround themselves with.

For all his inclusive rhetoric and his strategic silence on many issues, there are a number of people in Modi's party who continue to spew venom and spread hate about religious and ethnic minorities. At times they echo some of the themes that Modi himself spoke about pre-election. Members of Parliament Giriraj Singh, Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj all fall into this category. Indeed these figures often serve as echo-chambers or at times even as ostensible dissenters. So while Giriraj Singh infamously said that all those who oppose Narendra Modi should go to Pakistan, Sakshi Maharaj even questioned Modi's statement that Indian Muslims would die for India.

People are so taken up by these larger-than-life figures that they are "fooled" into thinking that the "thrown voice" of the dummy has nothing to do with the puppet master.

Similarly, in America there are widespread fears and debates about the various figures being included in Trump's Cabinet. General Mike Flynn's statements, in which he likens Islam to a "cancer" and a political ideology that masquerades as a religion, are already being debated on CNN. Trump's Chief of Staff Steve Bannon has suggested there are too many Asian CEOs in America and Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney-General, has had a long and distinguished career in opposing the civil-rights movement and at times has disparaged the African-American community amongst others. In what is most certainly a veritable rogues gallery, Mike Pompeo, who has defended mass surveillance, torture and waterboarding amongst other things, will serve as director of the CIA.

Perhaps one way to explain this seemingly schizophrenic phenomenon is by using the analogy of ventriloquism. Obviously the first thing that this implies is that there is one puppet-master. This is in keeping with the micro-managing style that both Trump and Modi espouse. By throwing their voices, whether due to instrumentality or because their office restrains them, Trump and Modi are able to get their "dummies" to echo their rhetoric. As G Sampath eloquently argued in The Hindu, part of Modi's, and by analogy Trump's, success lies in the fact that they make everything centred on their own personas. It is no longer a question of what the Republicans stand for or what the BJP stands for but what Messrs. Trump and Modi believe. This also aids the analogy with ventriloquism because people are so taken up by the larger-than-life figures of the leaders and their cult of personality that they are "fooled" into thinking that the "thrown voice" of the dummy has nothing to do with the puppet master.

Both these leaders have surrounded themselves with people who will provide the media and citizens with provocation and prejudice in the event that their economic policies do not take root.

The genuine urge to believe that a politician is sincere, cares about the electorate or indeed can catalyse meaningful change can then lead citizens into becoming unwitting victims of this political ventriloquism. The crumbling neo-liberal order and crony capitalism drew the Congress Party in India away from the grassroots and so people voted for Modi as a possible alternative. However, a few years down the line he too seems no different from his predecessors except for the fact that he continues to ply the population with empty rhetoric about his various enemies and therefore by extension the country's enemies. In America too, people have voted for Trump for similar reasons and perhaps primarily because of a frustration with an economic and political structure that has ignored them for too long. Trump has promised to work for the working classes again but to what extent this will really happen remains to be seen.

What is undeniable is that both these leaders have chosen to surround themselves with men, and some women, who will provide the media and citizens with provocation and prejudice in the likely event that their economic policies do not take root. The frustration with neo-liberalism has made people all the more eager to embrace a muscular and chauvinistic nationalism. After all, in the age of reality TV, which voyeuristically plays on people's insecurities and fears, everyone not only loves a good distraction but also loves being told that they are "worth it," warts and all.

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