By B. Z. Khasru
On Nov. 3, Americans will decide if they want President Donald Trump to run their country for four more years or former Vice President Joe Biden should replace him. Their likely pick is Biden, based on opinion polls.
It is not at all surprising that U.S. voters have turned against the populist president. Trump has given them ample reasons. He has mismanaged the Covid-19 pandemic, the disease that has so far killed more than 210,000 Americans and brought the world’s largest economy to its knees.
What is amazing, however, is how quickly misfortune befell Trump who seemed invincible just months ago. His bad luck foretells the fate of communal politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
To be fair, Modi has handled the Coronavirus better than Trump, even though the prime minister’s score card is nothing to brag about. His main test, however, is going to be how he puts India’s economy back on the right track. India’s growth will shrink by 10.3 percent this year, according to the IMF, and per capita income will dip below Bangladesh’s. By way of comparison, Bangladesh’s GDP was 40 percent smaller than India’s before Modi took over in 2014.
To ride out tough times, a leader must maintain domestic tranquility and enjoy public trust. Modi has fractured the nation and sent the economy into a tailspin. When populist leaders like Modi squander political capital, they walk on thin ice.
Trump has caused deep anxiety among many Americans by playing highly racially charged politics. Barry Sternlicht, a billionaire corporate mogul, is among those worried about America’s future. Once a Trump ally, Sternlicht is chairman of Starwood Capital Group, an investment fund that manages $60 billion in assets. He made a name for himself in corporate America as founder of Starwood Hotels. Being in real estate, he had a natural affinity with fellow real estate tycoon Trump. But no more.
India needs to heal
Sternlicht is no way connected to India or anything Indian. But the way this American business executive talks about Trump these days is something that might resonate with many Indians.
“The nation needs to heal, and I think we need to get back together, and I don’t think we’re going to do that with the rhetoric from the right,” Sternlicht recently lamented on CNBC television. To reunify America, he wants a healer in the White House. Biden is his probable choice.
Like America, India needs to heal, too; the nation is dangerously divided along religious lines. But the Indians can’t rely on Modi to bring the country back together. Like Trump, Modi is the divider-in-chief, and both of them use the same dirty tricks to energize their respective bases just to stay in power.
When Modi was swept into power, despite his religious bigotry as chief minister of Gujarat, many Indians hoped he would stay clean as the nation’s chief executive. India’s prime minister and Gujarat’s chief minister are two different political animals. India’s top leader takes the high road, leads the word’s largest democracy, doesn’t stoop down to nasty sectarian politics and split apart a nation that 1.4 billion Indians call home.
Because of his good economic showings in Gujarat, people also expected Modi to shape up India’s economy — to give it a stiff dose of pragmatism and put it on the fast track to prosperity. Sadly, his record is bleak, as is Trump’s. Modi’s performance in foreign affairs is equally dismal.
Modi’s Indo-Pacific trap
Trump created a circus by first warming up to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and then retreating into hibernation. Modi did the same by first embracing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and then ratcheting up tension with Pakistan. Trump is now locked in a fistfight with President Xi Jinping of China, and Mod is trapped in the Indo-Pacific conundrum, a ghost of the SEATO, a 1950s’ U.S.-inspired military pact that included Pakistan.
Worst of all, Modi has played the Hindutva card to rile up his fanatical saffron warriors to stir-up trouble. He has played provocateur by revoking Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy. For political purposes, he cheered up his lapdogs to propagate that India would use its military to wrest control of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and make the dream of “Akhand Bharat” come true someday.
All of his predecessors, including the two immediate-past prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee, sought peace with Pakistan. Singh came very close to a deal with President Pervez Musharraf. Modi has pushed everything back. His mishandling of boundary, water and trade issues with Bangladesh and Nepal has vitiated the environment in the neighborhood. India’s smaller neighbors are tilting toward China. With their backs against the wall, the Kashmiris even would welcome today Beijing’s intervention in Kashmir.
Violence made Muslims meek
Soaring violence against Muslims has made India’s largest minority group timid and meek. Black Lives Matter enjoys a groundswell of popular support in America. But sympathy for the Muslims is nonexistent among common Indians. Unlike American CEOs, India’s business executives have been mum on the rise of the far-right; they have failed to denounce Hindutva supremacists. Facing criticism online, The Tata Group just this week caved in and pulled out an ad, showing a Hindu bride receiving affection from her Muslim mother-in-law at a baby shower. India’s famous conglomerate had no guts to stand up to religious bigotry.
Last month, U.S. financial giant Citigroup Inc. found that racial bias cost America $16 trillion in wealth during the past 20 years. The U.S. economy would add $5 trillion over the next five years if the social injustice issue was addressed today.
India’s loss from its sectarian curse has yet to be calculated, but no doubt the number would be staggering. India has suffered far too long both socially and economically from this debilitating menace. It’s now high time for India Inc. to end its deafening silence and help India heal.
B. Z. Khasru is author of “Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, U.S., China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome.” His new book, “One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus an America,” will be published shortly by Rupa & Co., New Delhi.