India, Modi and Trump

Writing after its explosion in 20th-century Europe, Karl Polanyi described in his 1944 book “The Great Transformation” how civil society and individual liberty are threatened as never before when a society has to reconfigure itself to serve the “utopian experiment of a self-regulating market.” Social and political life in India, America and
Europe was drastically remade by neoliberal economism in recent decades, under, as the legal scholar David Kennedy has argued, the administration of a professional global class of hidden persuaders and status-seekers.

One of the first signs of this change in India was a proliferation of American-style think-tanks, sponsored by big business as eager as ever to influence political decision-making and military spending. In recent years, smooth-tongued “policy entrepreneurs” (Paul Krugman’s term) advocating free-market reforms and a heavily armed security-state have dominated India’s public sphere.

Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist who claims to be the intellectual father of India’s economic liberalization, argued in 2013 that the poor celebrate inequality, and with the poise of a Marie Antoinette, advised malnourished families in India to consume “more milk and fruits.” Arvind Panagariya, a colleague of Mr. Bhagwati’s who now works for the Indian government’s economic policy think-tank,
took to arguing that Indian children were genetically underweight, and not really as malnourished as the World Health Organization had claimed. The 2015 Nobel laureate Angus Deaton rightly calls such positions “poverty denialism.” …

For all his humblebragging, Mr. Modi, like Mr. Trump, illustrated perfectly how money talks, power seduces and success eclipses morality. One of Mr. Modi’s most loyal fan bases was rich Indian-American businesspeople, who were naturally attracted to the promise of a wealthy India allied with the United States. And conversely. At a charity event in New Jersey last month, Mr. Trump sought their support, and hailing India’s prime minister as a “great man,” declared, “I am a big fan of Hindu.” “Big, big fan.”

Long before Peter Thiel plumped for Mr. Trump and Mark Zuckerberg defended Mr. Thiel, Silicon Valley lined up to hail Mr. Modi’s vision of “Digital India.” Sheryl Sandberg declared that she was changing her Facebook profile in “his honor.” These data-monetizing fans of Hindu may not have known that Mr. Modi, supervising a radical ideological purge at home, had launched Digital India at his residence in New Delhi
with a private reception for some of India’s most vicious trolls. …

Such firebrands emerged out of economic and political crises in almost every major European country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, distracting angry citizens with the demonization of minorities, cosmopolitans and liberals. Drawing a cautionary tale from this blood-stained history, Polanyi assumed that the catastrophic triumph of economism over social and political necessities would be reversed. The three decades after World War II proved him right. Social-welfare policies underpinned national reconstruction in war-ravaged Europe, as well as in postcolonial Asia and Africa after decades of imperialism.

In our own time, a global network of elites has tried to restart the discredited utopian experiment of a self-regulating market. The experiment failed, and again the rage of cheated masses has spawned demagogues who simultaneously promise to avenge the left-behinds and to rewire their alliances with the elites. Any attempt to rebuild
democracy must reckon with the deeper reasons for its great and drastic transformation — above all in India, where Hindu supremacism, in its cruelty and callousness, anticipated the big, big American fan of Hindu.

The Incendiary Appeal of Demagoguery in Our Time