04/08/2016 11:17 AM IST | Updated 06/08/2016 12:10 AM IST

Trump Could Learn A Few Lessons From Modi: Observations From The Republican Convention


The Republican convention has been quite the show that I expected to be. Being an immigrant from India, I am quite used to political diversity and contrarian world views -- both exist in a variety of dimensions in my home country. As I absorbed the contents on the second day of the convention, I was amused and bewildered in equal measure, as I have been by the American elections in general so far. This piece is perhaps a reflection of that and provides a direct comparison to the 2014 Indian general election and prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's campaign to capture power.

Machismo vs. Constructive Rhetoric

One of the first things that strikes me about the American election cycle is the sheer bankruptcy of ideas in the discussions. This was even more evident in the Republican convention. The only person amidst the plethora of speakers who had to some extent a constructive plan was Speaker of House of Representatives Paul Ryan, and perhaps to some extent Rudy Giuliani. I found Mr Ryan's speech to be carefully prepared and well thought-out, politically. However, even that was not up to the mark in terms of a substantive discussion of ideas and policies.

May I know what vision it is that the GOP intends to project to the public in November, given that all they talk about is prosecuting Hilary Clinton...

The convention was supposed to have themes every day but I heard nothing but rants about Hilary Clinton, and the kind of macho vitriol that is designed to pump up an aggressive crowd. I mean, where was the debate on jobs? Where was the discussion on how Donald Trump was going to generate employment for the millions who are marginalized post the 2008 economic crisis? What were his policy prescriptions and who are the people he is going to consult? None of this was addressed. Considering that Mr Trump's primary theme in his campaign is to generate jobs and "Make America Great Again", I was quite aghast to find that after 11 months into an election campaign, I have no clue as a common viewer on how he is going to do that!

In India, despite the chaos of a developing country with a billion people, there is a certain amount of constructive talk which goes with the rhetoric. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out a stream of policies, including a promise to provide 24x7 electricity by 2019 across the country. Now that's a tough promise to fulfil -- I agree -- but there was a vision laid out to address the needs of the country. May I know what vision it is that the GOP intends to project to the public in November, given that all they talk about is prosecuting Hilary Clinton and about what a great man Donald Trump is?

The Small Matter Of A Track Record

The second thing that amuses me is the question of track record -- or lack of thereof -- in this presidential race. While Trump's credentials as a businessman are well-known, has there been any critical debate on his businesses and issues related to them? Has there been a consistent push towards an alternative narrative that running a business and government are two different things? Neither of these were done through the primaries nor by the opposing candidate Hilary Clinton.

The people of India chose a man who had the vision as well as the pedigree to hold the top job... I wonder why America can't do the same.

In the case of the Indian general election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chosen primarily because of his stellar track record in governing India's most prosperous state for more than a decade. He had the persona and portfolio to back him for the top job. The people of India relied on their wisdom to choose a man who had the vision as well as the pedigree to hold the top job in the country. I wonder why America can't do the same.

Changing With The Winds

The third thing that struck me was the sheer lack of effort by any of the speakers to bring the Trump worldview to the centre-right space. I think it is extremely politically naïve if the Trump camp thinks that they can win this general election by sticking with the extreme right positions that Trump took when he was running in the primaries. Banning Muslims from entering America, building a wall along the border and macho views on almost everything -- these things while fulfilling the audience in the primaries would surely fall short in the general election campaign. I would have expected the convention speakers to bring the Trump narrative inwards. Imagine if Melania Trump said, "I don't agree with what my husband has said on these issues and I am confident he will be inclusive because he has been that way all his life..." -- now that would have been a game-changer to bring the minorities into the Republican electoral fold. As an immigrant herself, much like other immigrants, it surely would have provided a more nuanced perspective to the views expressed by Trump earlier.

Modi made a conscious effort to focus only on development through his campaign and into his government, ensuring that divisive extreme right voices were kept at bay...

In the case of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a conscious effort to focus only on "vikas" (development) through his campaign and into his government, ensuring that divisive extreme right voices were kept at bay -- it was a responsible and also politically astute move to bring the larger electorate into the fold as he pursued his campaign as prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 general election.

Playing The Media

Another important thing that caught my eye was the media narrative around the convention. While I was flipping through the news channels, I was quite surprised to find that the media has not been pushing the GOP more on concrete issues. I understand Melania Trump's alleged repetition of some lines that Michelle Obama had earlier spoken is an issue -- however, for it to be the talking point for the full two days is a gross disservice to the role of the convention. The media was supposed to play the role of a critical observer, yet it has been moderate with Trump and the scheduling has been driven by his agenda. However, for all its concessions to the Republican candidate, it remains entangled in the "us vs. the media" narrative that has been played to a T by Trump.

One similarity between Trump and Modi is that both of them know how to use the media to optimize their political narrative.

The situation was the opposite in India when the media went after Narendra Modi for 10 long years in the case pertaining to the Gujarat riots where he was not even chargesheeted. In the presidential race, the media has barely grilled Trump but is still allowing itself to be drawn into the "them vs. the GOP" narrative. One similarity though, between Trump and Modi, is that both of them know how to use the media to optimize their political narrative. The media in India was naive about it, no doubt... but the American media seems to be even more so.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite these observations, I would be unfair if I didn't mention some of the positives that I noted too. It is impressive to see the Trump family express themselves in a manner that befits their upbringing -- they are perhaps his biggest allies and are showcasing it. One has to also acknowledge that Trump was one of the earliest people to understand the political reality of the sense of marginalization of the workers and White communities in the recent economic story of America. While Trump did cross the line in his pandering to that group, it also highlights his astuteness in gauging this space ahead of his Republican rivals. Fact is, the entire primary process is a grand exercise which puts the leaders to the highest test possible -- it tests the endurance and rigorousness of the candidates in a way that is not paralleled -- not even in my country India.

In retrospect, the presidential race in America has been fascinating to say the least. While I have critically analyzed some of the proceedings, I hope that sanity prevails and the American people elect a candidate who is inclusive and has a roadmap for America that befits its world status. It would be prudent if Donald Trump takes a leaf out of the book of the Indian Prime Minister and his brilliant campaign which got him to power with a record number of seats. At least then Mr. Trump and his Republican coterie will realize that perhaps the only way to power is through an inclusive and vision-oriented campaign that addresses the aspirations of the public at large. Until then, it will be just a circus.

Sriram Balasubramanian is a columnist and author of JAMBA-The Joint Family.

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