The stadium roared his name as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the podium to introduce a man who “needs no introduction.”
“His name is familiar to every person on the planet,” Modi said. “His every word is followed by tens of millions. He was a household name, and very popular even before he went on to occupy the highest office in this great country.”
It was quite the warmup act, and standing next to him that day last September in Houston, US President Donald Trump was clearly delighted. Trump has always loved performing for big crowds — he has barely taken a break from campaigning since 2016 — and no one can pack a venue quite like Modi, who Trump later compared to Elvis.
The US President will get another glimpse of Modi’s star power this week, when he lands in India for a reciprocal visit. Modi, Trump said, has promised “we’ll have 7 million people between the airport and the event” to greet them.
“It’s going to be very exciting,” Trump added. Though Ahmedabad, where the “Namaste Trump” rally is being held Monday, only has an estimated population of 5.6 million — Modi will likely find much more to impress Trump with during his India visit.
Despite growing frictions between Washington and New Delhi on trade, Modi presents a vision of what a successful Trumpism could look like. The Indian leader has succeeded in rallying not only his own party and base around him, but a majority of the country, and now faces little effective opposition, despite sporadic protests and outrage from liberals over alleged human rights abuses and unconstitutional actions.
By contrast, Trump is coming off the back of an impeachment trial — albeit one in which he ultimately remained in office — and facing a bruising general election later this year.
Since his election, Trump has never hidden his admiration for strongmen, praising everyone from Chinese President Xi Jinping, to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This has concerned critics, who worry about his authoritarian leanings and disdain for anyone who dares to disagree.
However, both Putin and Erdogan preside over historically flawed democracies — with weak institutions and a history of strongman leaders — which have come even more so under their leadership, and don’t provide much guidance on how an authoritarian shift could occur in the US.
India, too, is vastly different both historically and systemically from the US, but in Modi there exists a model of a democratic strongman that could be attractive for Trump and others like him. Modi proves that you don’t need an authoritarian system to produce a powerful leader with a tight grip on the county and the ability to squash opposition.
Trump and Modi share a number of outward similarities. Both are conservative nationalists with a history of railing against Muslims and immigrants, and a hostility to media criticism.
Both have seen cults of personality grow around them, their own popularity outdoing that of the party they represent, whether it be the Republicans, who have long given up trying to chart a course separate to Trumpism in any serious way, or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which Modi has carried from the electoral wilderness to become a vote-winning juggernaut.
Grip on power
While Trump remains incredibly popular among Republicans and may yet be reelected in 2020, he has faced fierce opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and at times been restrained by the US judicial branch, aspects Modi hasn’t grappled with the same way.
Unlike Trump, Modi has remained seemingly unshakeable.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court gave a victory to Hindu hardliners, ruling they could build a temple at the centuries-old Ayodhya holy site, where the Babri Masjid mosque was torn down by a mob in 1992. Multiple senior BJP figures have been linked to the mob attack, and the ruling came amid a renewed wave of anti-Muslim violence that has been blamed by some on Modi’s own rhetoric.
The country’s top court also refused in December to halt a controversial citizenship bill that sparked mass protests. Critics of the law say it will further marginalize Muslims, and could leave millions stateless.
Both victories could further Modi and the BJP’s policy of Hindutva, turning India from a secular state into a Hindu nation, where members of other religions, as well as lower-caste Hindus, are subordinate to the majority.
And while the citizenship bill, in particular, has sparked mass protests, and Modi’s policies with regard to Kashmir sparked condemnation from the international community (though not Washington), neither have done much to shake his grip on power.
The cost of dissent continues to grow, however, with reports of mob attacks on protesters, and death threats and harassment for those labeled “anti-national.” Meanwhile, those sectors of the media that aren’t fully on board with Modi’s plan already, are “under pressure to self-censor or toe the government line,” according to Human Rights Watch.
“I remember India before, and it was very torn,” Trump said after his meeting with Modi last year. “There was a lot of dissension, a lot of fighting. And he brought it all together, like a father would bring it together. Maybe he’s the father of India.”
That popularity, as well as his control over the media and huge Hindu base, helped carry Modi to a thumping victory in last year’s election, increasing the BJP’s majority and all but wiping out the opposition Congress Party.
Facing a far tighter election in a matter of months, and a renewed Democratic Party determined to oust him, Trump may be hard pressed to match Modi’s success.