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Trump Isn’t the American Modi


If

Donald Trump

visits India later this month, as appears likely, brace for a slew of comparisons in the media between the U.S. president and Indian Prime Minister

Narendra Modi.

Though it is easy to list superficial similarities between the two leaders—both are populist nationalists who have upended conventional politics in their countries—viewing India through an American prism serves no useful purpose.

Yet comparisons between Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump in the Western media have proliferated in recent months. “Modi with his hard-right politics, open bigotry, and constant rhetorical war against those he views as his domestic enemies is the kind of foreign leader Trump praises a lot,” according to MSNBC’s

Chris Hayes.

Al Jazeera’s

Mehdi Hasan,

writing at the Intercept news site, says Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi “have fascism in common.”

That’s questionable, but the comparisons resonate with some people because they’re plausible on the surface. Both leaders appeal primarily to their country’s majority community—whites in America, Hindus in India. Both despise—and in turn are despised by—traditional elites, including in the media. Both play off wider concerns about Islamist extremism to target Muslims more broadly. Arguably Mr. Trump’s so-called Muslim ban and Mr. Modi’s controversial citizenship law—which fast-tracks Indian citizenship for refugees who follow virtually any faith except Islam—are cut from the same ideological cloth.

But support from the majority group is hardly uncommon for a leader in a democracy. If anything, the converse is rarer. Look more closely and the two leaders’ differences start to look more significant than their similarities.

In terms of background, Mr. Modi, who once sold tea on a railway platform in India’s western state of Gujarat, could scarcely be more different from the brassy son of a successful New York real estate mogul. Unlike Mr. Trump, an outsider who effectively took over the GOP, Mr. Modi is the ultimate insider in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. A member since youth of the Hindu-nationalist National Volunteer Corps, the BJP’s ideological parent, Mr. Modi climbed up the party’s ranks over decades.

As for economic philosophy, Mr. Trump believes in freeing business from overregulation. Mr. Modi, despite once praising “minimum government” and promising to replace India’s notorious red tape with a red carpet for business, has presided over the most statist government in decades. Mr. Modi has cut corporate taxes, but he has also put in place possibly the world’s most complex goods and services tax as well as armed India’s heavy-handed tax inspectors with draconian new powers. India’s economic problems—stifling bureaucracy, sclerotic state-owned firms, a government-dominated banking sector, and land and labor laws that discourage investment—remain largely the same as when Mr. Modi first took office six years ago.

Companies in India remain in thrall to the government. Earlier this month, a slew of airlines—including state-owned Air India and several private carriers—abruptly banned a comedian from flying for accosting a pro-government television anchor on a flight.

But the biggest reason to take Trump-Modi comparisons with an industrial tub of salt is neither biographical nor ideological. India and the U.S. are simply too different to be compared reasonably. The former is a relatively young democracy with a low level of income per capita and weak institutions. The latter is the most powerful country in the world—proof that democracy works.

Madhav Khosla,

who teaches law at Columbia University and politics at India’s Ashoka University, points to three key elements the U.S. has and India lacks: robust, independent institutions, a strong civil society including private corporations, and a unified opposition.

“In the U.S., an academic who criticizes Trump wouldn’t for a moment worry about being picked up by the government while walking into Columbia Law School or Harvard,” says Mr. Khosla by phone from Delhi. “In India that could happen. That’s the difference.”

When American and Indian leaders meet, they often talk up ties between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. This disguises an essential difference: the U.S. has more than two centuries of experience with liberal institutions. Power is dispersed among them—including Congress, an independent judiciary and the media—in a way that constrains any president.

In India, similar institutions are proving to be much more brittle. For instance, after the Modi government suddenly abrogated autonomy for the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in August, the courts ducked the issue of the action’s constitutionality. India has developed a problem with judges refusing to enforce the right of habeas corpus, a cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon law that India inherited from the British. Much of the media, owned by businesses susceptible to government pressure, spends more time policing the opposition than the government.

In the end, reasonable people can disagree about whether Indian democracy has the strength to survive Mr. Modi’s tenure. But we ought to be able to do this without dragging Mr. Trump into the debate.

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