Open Essay

The Last White Backlash

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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With his flaxen mop and delicately gesticulating hands, Trump put his money on India long before the Republican Hindu Coalition discovered him

WATCHING DONALD JOHN TRUMP graciously promise to “be president for all Americans” as he showered generous compliments on the defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton recalled Ronald Reagan’s reply when asked, “How could an actor become president?”: “How can a president not be an actor?” he retorted. But the most important job in the world would collapse in a terrible fiasco if the incumbent excelled only in dazzling deception. The secret of success lies in the ability to transform theatre into reality so that the hopes and dreams that resulted in this week’s historic triumph are fleshed out on the stage of everyday life.

India should be especially joyful, for the White House will for the first time ever have an incumbent with a personal stake in this country’s stability and prosperity. “I have big jobs going up in India… India is doing great,” says the 70-year-old real estate billionaire who has never held public office before but who has his eye on Pune, Mumbai and other Indian cities. A strong India that can resist challenges from China and Pakistan could take his private fortune to new heights. So, when Salman Khurshid, India’s former External Affairs minister, told Georgetown University students that he thought “India would be very, very worried if” Trump became US president, he was speaking as a fashionable left-of-centre idealist or as spokesman for NRIs divorced from India’s national interest. The reasons why some Americans, even in Trump’s own Republican Party, criticise him have little resonance in bilateral relations. Trump is an exception in the Washington Beltway, far more an outsider than Narendra Modi claims to be in Delhi. Few American politicians have much interest in or knowledge of the vast unknown beyond their shores teeming with foreigners. John Fitzgerald Kennedy thought he knew enough to compare Robert Clive’s rule in India with Oliver Cromwell’s in Ireland. Jimmy Carter pored over the Bhagavad Gita before visiting India. Richard Nixon, the president Indians loved to hate, was probably the best informed. He was only 17 when his Quaker grandmother gave him a life of Mahatma Gandhi which he read over and over again. He visited India 16 years before becoming president and came to two memorable conclusions which don’t seem irrelevant today. First, he thought the wonder was not that India was badly governed but that it was governed at all. Second, Nixon was convinced that Jawaharlal Nehru sought to “influence if not control” all of Asia and Africa.

Ronald Reagan, whose term witnessed the first thaw in a frozen relationship and whom Trump resembles in some ways, never came to India. But as he confessed, “at least I slept a few moments in India” when his flight from Taipei to “London, England” made a late night refuelling halt in New Delhi. But it was the unlikely 43rd president that India fell in love with, who seemed to exemplify Blaise Pascal’s much-quoted line, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.’ George W Bush Jr’s reason lay in an astute assessment of American national interest which is why it’s essential today to look for logic beyond Trump’s eccentricities.

Trump is an exception in the Washington Beltway, far more an outsider than Narendra Modi claims to be in Delhi. Few American politicians have much interest in or knowledge of the vast unknown beyond their shores teeming with foreigners

Bush, governor of Texas, was an even more unexpected champion. He had set foot outside his country only three times in his 54 years. He thought Grecians lived in Greece. He stared blankly when a Glamour magazine journalist uttered the word ‘Taliban’ in a Rorschach test; enlightened about the Taliban, he replied, “Oh, I thought you said some band.” The cartoon that showed him wondering why India and Pakistan should quarrel over a sweater (cashmere) was not too far off the mark. He didn’t know who governed Chechnya, Pakistan or India. But it didn’t matter. As Bush’s communications director said, “For the American people, the relevant question is not how many names a candidate has memorised but does he have the strategic vision to lead and can he protect American interests.”

The 45th President Elect certainly nurses a robust vision of his country’s future. Some of his rhetoric holds the bombastic ring of speeches by Britain’s Nigel Farage or France’s Marine Le Pen. But that is the mast to which American voters who face economic distress and political uncertainty, who fear their global leadership is slipping and their country being taken over by Black, Brown, Yellow and off-White races, have nailed their colours. They believe him when he vows to “make America great again”. It does not occur to them to ask when he promises to reclaim his country’s destiny who has stolen it. He has promised to restore the infrastructure, create jobs and harness creative talent. The multitude wants no more.

Indira Gandhi’s press adviser, HY Sharada Prasad, never forgot how her fist was clenched on the telephone receiver, the knuckles showing white, as she appealed to Lyndon B Johnson to save India from famine. She spoke with sweet politeness but once the conversation was over, exploded angrily, “I don’t ever want us ever to have to beg for food again.” Hence the Green Revolution

With his flaxen mop and delicately gesticulating hands, Trump put his money on India long before the Republican Hindu Coalition discovered him. Politicians gamble with their country’s destiny, but businessmen don’t lightly risk goodwill. True, he hasn’t invested his own money here. But he has invested his reputation in two ambitious projects through licensees. That makes him a stakeholder in our prosperity. “It has been my desire for many years to be involved in a great project in Mumbai, and it is my honour to bring the Trump lifestyles to the citizens of this truly global metropolis,” he was quoted saying.

A 2010 attempt fizzled out, but in 2012, Panchshil Realty announced the Trump Towers Pune luxury residential property. It features ‘two striking glass façade towers of 23 storeys each, offering 46 spectacular single-floor residences’. The Lodha Group’s Trump Tower Mumbai will be an 800-ft 75-storey skyscraper in Worli with gold and glass three- and four-bedroom apartments of over 2,000 sq ft each with indoor jacuzzis, Poggenpohl kitchen cabinets, automatic toilets and everything else that the well-heeled arriviste craves. Flat prices range from $1.6 million up. Clearly, Trump understands the ostentatious tastes of rich Indians, especially in Mumbai.

Richard Nixon, the president Indians loved to hate, was probably the best informed. He was only 17 when his Quaker grandmother gave him a life of Mahatma Gandhi which he read over and over again. He visited India 16 years before becoming president and came to two memorable conclusions which don’t seem irrelevant today

Perhaps there is a connection between the business opportunities he seeks and the compliments he showers on India. “India is doing great,” he says. Recognising the responsibility that goes with size, population, a stable democracy and economic potential, he sees India as “the check to Pakistan” which is “probably the most dangerous country in the world”. India has its “own nukes and a very powerful army.” It’s not necessary for India to toe Trump’s harder line on China but that, too, is an invitation to play a positive role in holding the peace in Asia.

Personal factors are, of course, of limited relevance in foreign policy where Palmerston’s iron dictum about countries having no eternal allies or perpetual enemies—only interests that are eternal and perpetual—still rules. Even without Trump’s special interest, India would have to make the best of whoever occupied the White House. It’s something we have done before. Indira Gandhi’s press adviser, HY Sharada Prasad, never forgot how her fist was clenched on the telephone receiver, the knuckles showing white, as she appealed to Lyndon B Johnson to save India from famine. She spoke with sweet politeness but once the conversation was over, exploded angrily, “I don’t ever want us ever to have to beg for food again.” Hence the Green Revolution.

Later, Johnson took a shine to her, unexpectedly staying on for dinner after the Indian ambassador’s reception during her 1966 visit and throwing the seating arrangements into disorder until Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar gallantly withdrew. Johnson tried to persuade Mrs Gandhi to dance at the White House party until she explained that while she had no personal objection to taking the floor, it might be misunderstood in India. He sent for BK Nehru, India’s ambassador, and jovially offered to attack India if it would help her win the elections.

Trump dwelt in his victory speech on the length of the election campaign—which he called a “movement” on the Republican side—and how hard Hillary Clinton had worked at it. That was, of course, a way of drawing attention to his own spectacular success. But there’s no denying it’s been a long, nasty and brutish campaign that might leave behind a trail of bitterness and enmity. Common sense suggests that many of America’s 200 million voters might have become disgusted at the invectives hurled about.

But, as Deep K Datta-Ray argued in The Telegraph, perhaps, even the ugliness served a purpose. ‘The defining features of the campaign are the best, and arguably the worst, of the US democracy and, ironically, vacuous entertainment, or what has been derided this year as ‘trivial’ campaigning.’ His point is that the insults and the abuse also provided ‘detailed insights into the thinking, attitudes and actions of the candidates’ strengthening ‘the core idea of openness and accountability’. It enables American voters to choose between candidates who have been stripped bare of all posturing. Since US presidents have an impact far beyond native shores, this exposure also enables foreign countries—India, for instance—to shape their strategies for the next five years.

Ronald Reagan, whose term witnessed the first thaw in a frozen relationship and whom Trump resembles in some ways, never came to India. But as he confessed, “at least I slept a few moments in India” when his flight from Taipei to “London, England” made a late night refuelling halt in New Delhi

What Modi has to remember is that it’s not Trump alone. Republicans have also secured majorities in the House of Representatives, the Senate and will probably get to reappoint a fifth Republican nominee to the Supreme Court. That would leave the new president—an inexperienced outsider—with few checks and balances. Little wonder investors reeled from the prospect of a victory that would reverberate around the world and futures markets pointed to a fall of nearly 600 points in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Clinton’s refusal to make the customary concession speech right after the result cannot have relieved the deep dejection many Americans feel at the shattering defeat the Democrats suffered.

It would be a disgrace if New Delhi judges Trump’s presidency only by his earlier comments on H-1B visas and jobs lost to India. It was shaming when Modi, who is so high on ‘Make in India’ patriotism, in effect begged Obama for jobs for people our government has spent a fortune on training but cannot employ because frivolities like cow protection, chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ and anti-Pakistan triumphalism take precedence over the nuts and bolts of economic growth. This dependence on the US is a worrying factor of contemporary life. Writing of immigration and innovation, Vivek Wadhwa, then a senior research associate at the Harvard Law School, called the exit of Indians when their non-immigration transitional H-1B visas expired ‘the first brain drain in [US] history’. His boasts of the immigrant contribution to US prosperity may be justified but not the claim that ‘America is no longer the only land of opportunity for these foreign-born workers’ because ‘there’s another, increasingly promising, destination: home.’

That may be true of the Chinese; it emphatically isn’t of Indians for two reasons. First, ‘home’ is very far from being sufficiently developed to offer comparable facilities and opportunities. Second, possibly because of two centuries of colonial indoctrination, the West’s lifestyle is so much more attractive for most middle-class Indians that they are anxious to work in the US even for less than American wages. Ultra-patriotic pontification on India is some compensation for that lowly status.

The clamour for H-1B visas, whose holders have been compared to indentured labourers, underlines that dichotomy. India can’t complain if Indian software companies which grabbed 86 per cent of the total H-1B visas in 2014 (China, accounting for the third largest immigrant group in the US, after Mexico and India, took only 5 per cent), have to pay higher fees or suffer restrictions. Employment permits are not a right. Emigration is the index of domestic failure.

The most significant lesson of Trump’s victory is a deep anti- establishment anger among American voters. They didn’t want a dynasty. With two Bush presidents, a second Clinton would have been too much. And so ‘Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar’ starts a journey into the political unknown that might include a non-White majority US by the middle of this century. If so, the Trump vote could be the White majority’s backlash against the inevitability of demography as destiny.

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