This Diwali, let us be thankful to Donald Trump.
He could not celebrate Diwali at a Hindu temple in Virginia personally. After all he does have an election to win. But his daughter Ivanka, who many think of as the improved version of Trump anyway, promised to do the honours. Alas, even she could not make it. But Lara Trump showed up instead. Lara who? She's a Trump by marriage, the family bahu. Sort of like Sonia Gandhi actually.
Indian-American community activist Rajesh Gooty welcomed her exultantly saying that with her presence Diwali had arrived early in the county. Community activists said this was the first time a family member of one of the top two presidential candidates was visiting a Hindu temple.
And now Trump has even released a Happy Diwali election ad, albeit a poorly-edited one, targeting desis with the tagline, Ab ki baar Trump sarkar, or as he mangles it "Abi ki baar Trump sorkar". Sorkaar? A Bengali must have coached him. But hey, full points for trying.
He's not the first. Phir ek baar, Cameron sarkar, said David Cameron when he ran for re-election after worshipping at the Swami Narayan temple. Narendra Modi responded by tweeting "Phir ek baar, Cameron sarkar" after Cameron won. The magic slogan had worked but not for long. Brexit sent Cameron packing soon. Trump should remember that.
Let's be fair, Trump has done a fair bit of outreach to a community where support for him is stuck around 7% according to polls. He's addressed a rally, released an election ad, sent his daughter-in-law to a Hindu temple. The irony is, one of his political action committee still released an ad trying to paint Hillary Clinton as the one in India's pocket, the outsourcing champion, the one who cares more about India than USA.
Perhaps it helps that apart from one call-centre accent mocking moment, Trump has not really gone after Indian-Americans. The two-page New York Times spread listing the 282 people, places and things Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter does not include Indians or India. Since he's gone after pretty much every other minority in the US at some point or the other, perhaps Indians were the only group left for some Trump love.
"Trump's wooing of the Indian-American community feeds right into the airbrushed model minority image the community has of itself."
Of course it also helps that Shalli Kumar, the Indian entrepreneur who likes to claim he is the first desi Republican and who, along with his wife, are huge donors to the Trump's campaign. His Republican Hindu Coalition has been the moving force behind Donald Trump's Desi Adventure. Actually whether Trump wins or loses, Shalli Kumar has become a "name" in this election with his quixotic and high-profile support for The Donald. He for sure, is a winner this time. Perhaps the next Republican Convention will give him a few moments on stage. This one had no desis on display despite Kumar's big donations.
But it is intriguing the way Trump has gone about his outreach. There's usually a set script for these overtures, one that Barack Obama has also followed. Usually you mention a little inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi (perhaps a quote from him), maybe a joking reference to Indian food (Obama claims to know how to cook dal although it was a Pakistani roommate's mother who taught him) and then the usual boilerplate dialogue about how the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy are "natural" allies. However Washington is always the top dog in the relationship and India is the aspirant for America's affections.
"He dared to do what even the BJP can't quite do. He equated India with Hindu. He loves the Hindu."
Trump, perhaps inadvertently, turned that on its head. His outreach to Indian-Americans, (OK, who are we kidding, Hindu Americans) seems to be based on presenting himself as Buzzfeed put it, the American Modi. He told the crowd in New Jersey he looks forward to working with "great man" Narendra Modi "who has been very energetic in reforming India's bureaucracy", something Trump wants to do in the USA as well. He touted Modi's economic schemes as a model for the US. Trump, very much an America First candidate, seems to be saying he wants to take a leaf out of Narendra Modi's book. Now that's a first. And he dared to do what even the BJP can't quite do. He equated India with Hindu. He loves the Hindu.
Trump's wooing of the Indian-American community feeds right into the airbrushed model minority image the community has of itself. It strokes the spelling bee over-achiever ego and carefully puts out of sight uncomfortable truths such as the fact that Indians constitute one of the fastest growing "illegal" populations in the United States by dint of overstaying visas rather than border crossing without papers. But Trump plays the good-immigrant, bad-immigrant game and it resonates well with many Indian Americans. And it gives a xenophobic campaign some diversity cover.
Funnily, some of Narendra Modi's most passionate supporters bristle at the comparison. Trump is a billionaire born with a silver spoon in his mouth unlike Modi. While Modi as PM has been very shrewd and careful about his Mann ki baat, Trump makes a specialty out of shooting from the hip and insulting anyone he likes. Modi is a long-time politician, Trump is a carpetbagger even in his own party. But Trump, like Modi, wants to paint himself as the outsider candidate, a robust nationalist, jousting against biased media, the one who will shake up the establishment, unafraid to call a spade a spade especially if it's an "Islamic terrorist" spade. "Donald Trump (as president) would be a very tough defender of the United States. Prime Minister Modi is a very tough defender of India," said former US Speaker Newt Gingrich. "They would both enjoy each other."
But let's be clear, in this case, Modi is the master, Trump is at best the apprentice.
And now by borrowing that famous Modi tagline, Trump seems to be trying to attach himself to Modi's coat-tails. Actually there's a perfect coat Modi-ji has that Trump can attach himself to. It's expensive, it's flashy and it has the leader's name stitched all over it. It's branding on steroids. Come to think of it, it's actually very very Trump.
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