Trump Loves Modi — but Obama Loved Him First

Donald Trump has been rightly condemned for his buddy-buddy relationship with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. But it was Barack Obama who helped legitimize the far-right leader in the first place.

Barack Obama talks to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at a working dinner at the Nuclear Security Summit on March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Flickr)

In September 2014, Michelle and Barack Obama invited Narendra Modi, the then–newly elected prime minister of India, to a lavish private dinner at the White House. The presidential fête reversed a prior travel ban on Modi, who had been barred from entering the United States for complicity in genocidal violence against Muslims in 2002. An official (though hardly impartial) investigation in India had cleared Modi of all charges in 2012, but Obama’s revocation of the travel ban placed an international stamp of approval on the questionable decision, brushing aside all allegations to make way for the new far-right face of India.

A decorous dinner courtesy of the cosmopolitan first couple seems a world away from the reprehensible far-right lovefest at the recent “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston, where Donald Trump and Modi shared a stage. But looks deceive. In classic Obama fashion, the get-together with Modi was a polished but highly insidious act of support for Modi’s infant prime ministership, quieter but perhaps scarier than Trump’s open embrace. US corporate interests needed to keep an “economically emerging,” far-right India close, so Obama obliged.

The dinner must have gone well because soon afterward the Obamas accepted a reciprocal invitation and attended India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2015. It was the first time a US president had been present at India’s most spectacular national event, and the press delighted in the chemistry between the two leaders. On full display were Obama’s liberal multicultural credentials, and in his grace Modi’s profile rose in turn (the rise continues despite sporadic but intense protests). Modi did not forget to show his gratitude to Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the man who engineered the Obama bromance: last year he appointed Jaishankar external affairs minister so he could continue his job of sanitizing India’s Hindu right.

In exchange for all this friendliness, Modi got an international makeover, Obama gained a terror-fighting partner — and corporate America received new avenues for investment. In 2015, Obama landed a deal that would secure US investments in India’s nuclear energy — reenergizing a nuclear accord that had been stalled since the early 2000s, in the long shadow cast by the 1984 Bhopal disaster and the fierce resistance of affected people and activists, who demanded that US companies be held liable for accidents. Thanks to his buddy Modi’s commitment to crushing dissent, Obama was able to push past the proposed liability clause, citing clean energy as an environmental benefit of nuclear power, and ignoring the hazardous risks borne disproportionately by the poor. Friends until the end, Obama and Modi spoke in 2017 before Obama left office, affirming their cooperation in matters of defense and nuclear energy.

Political commentators have noted the parallels in style and ideology between Trump and Modi (as well as Trump and Boris Johnson, Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Trump and Vladimir Putin), but have rarely gone beyond this. It’s as if across the world, strongmen are rising out of a shared primordial muck and tilting the world’s political axis suddenly to the right.

But Trump and Modi, repugnant as they are, did not start this tilt: they are the inheritors of older transnational flows of ideology, tactics, and money that have sustained a global neoliberal consensus for decades. Let’s not forget what Obama presided over: the big bank bailout, an expanding surveillance state, mass incarceration, mass deportation, and drone warfare. Similarly, Obama’s relationship with Modi is one chapter in a very long history of the US political class, both Democrat and Republican, endorsing xenophobes and fascists in other countries. Many a strongman like Modi have been legitimized by American political elites (although Nixon probably did not give Pinochet a warm hug and friendly phone calls).

In the case of India, US corporate interests need the country as an economic client and thus bracket off India’s anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim politics as a separate matter. Mainstream press coverage tends to abet this distortion, disconnecting the country’s economic rise from its virulent Hindu nationalism. With Trump and Modi now the best of friends, disconnecting the economic from the “cultural” become more difficult: it’s now obvious that neoliberalism goes hand in hand with far-right xenophobia.

But we shouldn’t forget Obama’s hand in Modi’s rise. And we should remember that polished, centrist liberals are not always at cross-purposes with crass conservatives. Neoliberal regimes worldwide have always been woven together in strategic, mutually supporting relationships of accumulation and violence, regardless of who is at the helm.

Out of all the front-runners for the 2020 Democratic nomination, only Bernie Sanders has spoken out against Modi; other candidates are too busy staffing their campaigns with Hindu right ideologues and ensuring that India provides cheap labor and open markets to US corporate interests. Bernie’s singular moral clarity is unsurprising — only a committed socialist can fully grasp the internationalism of reactionary forces and oppose those forces at home and abroad.

Finesse has never been a defense against fascism — it’s been a breeding ground. The far right cannot be defeated by returning to a (neo)liberalism that fostered it in the first place. To really reject the far right, we need more than finesse: we need clearheaded visionaries who can imagine worlds beyond neoliberalism.