Palingenetic myth and the making of Trump Train and Modi Wave

          The 2014 Modi campaign in India and the 2016 Trump campaign in the USA possess essential elements which are identifiably palingenetic – harbouring and propagating ideas of rebirth and regeneration of a nation dispossessed of it’s ‘former pride and glory’, appealing to the ‘true patriots’ (often steeped in ultra-nationalistic fervour) to rise in devoted support of the heroic male figure, a figure anointed as the only hope of a nation beleaguered on multiple fronts. Considered against the background of the histories of politics and the politics of histories, both campaigns emerge clearly as a form of political modernism, based not on a pessimistic sense of decadence but on a palingenetic diagnosis of the state of the nation.

Modi (L) and Trump (R) publicity. (Photo Credit: AFP / USA Today)

Enthusiastic Modi (L) and Trump (R) supporters. (Photo Credit: India Today / Daily Mail)

The perceived immediate threats to the one nation identified by the campaigns broadly encapsulate entities both without and within – neighbouring nations and nationalities; the corruption of the ruling political elite; liberalism and the growth of organized labour and communism; the proliferation of cosmopolitanism accompanied by symptoms of racial/religious degeneracy via miscegenation; clubbed along with poll perennials like spiking inflation, unemployment, and lack of progress. Ideas of ‘manliness’ and ‘male strength’ are gloved in the myth making processes in creating the heroic figure, the harbinger of infinite change, the fearless and strong leader much needed by an ’emasculated’ nation. Trump’s puffery of his fabled stamina and frequent jibes at the weakness of his (female) opponent and Modi’s puffery of his Mr. Universe like ’56-inch chest’ and jibes at the weakness of his opponents are consistent with their subsequent lionization by their followers. A lionization that takes quite a literal turn with both Modi and Trump featuring in supporter generated promotional material incorporating lions – symbolic of raw courage, royalty, authority, fearlessness, and of course, male strength.

Trump (L) and Modi (R) supporter generated promotional material. (Source: Respective supporter websites)

Modi campaign: “Achche Din Aane Wale Hain” (Good Days are just around the corner), “Abki Bar, Modi Sarkar” (This Time, Modi Government.) (Photo Credit: BJP Campaign)

Trump delivers a video message to Indian American voters in a campaign advert. (Photo Credit: YT / Trump Campaign)

Modi’s campaign spirit of ‘Nayi Soch, Nayi Ummeed’ (New Thinking, New Hope) and “Achche Din Aane Wale Hain” (Good Days are just around the corner) and his subsequent nationalistic call of ‘Make in India’, certainly finds resonance in Trump’s #MAGA (Make America Great Again), an exhortation, as much as a slogan, in reclaiming lost national pride and glory, an incitement for rebirth and renewal. The utopia of national regeneration and rebirth as a rationale for a revolutionary, change making assault on the status quo, led by a heroic male figure, understandably finds popular appeal, especially among adherents of the political right/far right, leading to, what I would term as ‘mainstreaming of the fringe.’ Far right ideas of religious and race/caste purity/supremacy, non-assimilation/segregation, cementing of gender roles, the justification of the use of violence as a means of subjugation, among others, inevitably enter the political discourse and the ‘echo chambers’ of both the nations, so much so, that fringe worldviews cease to be fringe anymore. Modi’s long association with Hindu nationalism and it’s Islam opposing contours is well documented, as is Trump’s less than flattering rhetoric on Islam in general, and radicalized Islam in particular. Unified, as it were, by common causes, the far right Hindu nationalists in India identify a Modi in Trump.

‘Hindu Sena’ (Hindu Army) celebrates Trump’s birthday (L) and a fire ritual in support of Trump (R) in New Delhi, India. (Photo Credit: IANS / NYT)

For the many who have been rendered apathetic or disenfranchised for decades, and for the many who have been disenchanted with the political establishment, the Trump Train and the Modi Wave seemed like opportune vehicles for them to ride in, for the forging of collective national identity and the salvaging of lost national pride would have been only possible as a movement in devoted support of the mythic ‘straight-talking’, ‘no-nonsense’ men of action; protest candidates who, when brought into power, will emphatically dismantle the status quo and work economic and social miracles, gloriously ushering in ‘prosperity, peace and development’ for most, if not all. All this, while decimating the enemy. This drive for palingenesis, the sense that the breakdown of contemporary socio-political reality may be ushering in a new one, spawned two significant yet insignificant objects – the Trump Cap and the Modi Mask. Their mass produced banality deflects attention from their ‘ceremonial’ significance – for the choice of a sports/military cap and an anthropo mask (for nations rife with sporting/military and religious rituals respectively,) works to normalize and legitimize ‘the movement.’

(L) Modi masks at a rally and (R) Trump caps at a rally. (Photo Credit: India Today/Time)

Two years down the line, the Modi Wave in India is still awaiting landfall in terms of delivering on all the promises made, and ‘prosperity and development’ still eludes vast numbers, people who have progressively fallen ‘off the map.’ Some of the 2014 Modi adverts on price rise/ inflation seem like a cruel joke now, and the weave of the social fabric, along with relationships with neighbouring nations, have never been more fragile. On the other side of the planet, the Trump Train, against odds, might just find itself doing the victory lap, less than a week from now. The idea of the ‘Train’ of course has a more sinister ring to it, as a reference to the Nazi holocaust trains and probably it won’t be too long before someone or the other gets told “You will be seeing a train shortly” and “Get ready for the train.” Let us hope better sense prevail. Habituated to elaborate electoral spectacles every few years (in mythic terms, the inexorable cycle of creation and destruction!,) I wonder whether Prof. Colin Crouch‘s idea of ‘Post Democracy‘ has matured and is playing out in a much more recognizable manner in contemporary socio-politics: Quoting him :  “Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them. Behind this spectacle of the electoral game, politics is really shaped in private by interaction between elected governments and elites which overwhelmingly represent business interests.” [Excerpt from: Crouch, C. (2004). Post-democracy. Malden, MA: Polity.] Are we all then, just undergoing the motions of democratic make-belief every few years?  Can we translate the increasing sense of an external locus of control for the citizenry, to a more empowering and encouraging internal locus of control?

UPDATE: This update line is being keyed in as President Elect Trump is delivering his acceptance and victory speech (Nov/2016.)


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