There once was a conservative candidate who promised a new era of economic growth. He promised to get tougher on a neighboring country he viewed as hostile, and he was widely feared by Muslims. He vowed to run the country like a company: efficiently and pro-business.
His name is Narendra Modi and he is currently the prime minister of India.
Modi’s success underscores the speed and magnitude at which politics can change. In a U.S. election season that has surprised many, it could foreshadow how the rise of Donald Trump — underscored by one recent national poll showing him now leading Hillary Clinton — might play out.
Elections can feel like an enormous wheel akin to what Tyrion Lannister describes in “Game of Thrones”: an unstoppable cycling of the same in-fighting and empty posturing, just with different party names. India is no exception. There, “politics” is usually a synonym for “corruption,” a feeling that many Americans can empathize with.
Even considering the notion of affecting institutional change feels exhausting. But being an intimate witness to India’s 2014 general election as a writer for Quartz taught me a big lesson on political inertia: At any time, we are capable of creating any outcome.
Back in 2014, Modi was widely expected to win the election. But what nobody in India expected was the margin: He won more seats than anyone in his party had ever won. Meanwhile, the Indian National Congress — the party of Gandhi and Nehru — won only 44 seats in India’s equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives. This was far less than their previous worst performance of 114 seats in 1999. Indeed, it was so few that it didn’t even meet the minimum number of 55 seats for the Congress Party to become the official opposition.
Hillary Clinton even bears some similarity to Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s liberal opponent in 2014. While Gandhi didn’t lead in the polls, both candidates nonetheless have chief executive relatives and come with a formidable political name. Yet it is the sentiment of political repetition surrounding them that feels the most similar — a sense that they represent an entrenched array of special interests. It was against this “old guard” opponent that Modi won his unprecedented victory.
Before running for Prime Minister, Modi was the Chief Minister of the Indian state Gujarat for 13 years. What made him controversial was that he was in power during a three-day riot in 2002 that resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 people, the majority of whom were Muslims. Modi has always denied he played a role in the rioting and was actually cleared by an Indian Supreme Court-appointed investigation team.
But the preference for Hindus is clear: Modi’s party, the BJP, very publicly espouses a doctrine called Hindutva, a conservative Hindu nationalist worldview. Many Indians, including many Modi supporters, dispute the official story of his role in the riots.
Herein lies the real comparison between Modi and Trump: It is not so much about the two men themselves, but their ideologies and the pervasive social sentiments the two men capitalize on in galvanizing their support bases.
I wrote in 2014 that what was scary about many Modi supporters was not specifically their view on Modi’s guilt. It was that even if they privately thought he was in some way involved in the 2002 riots, they would still vote for him. In other words, even if Modi had come out and said, “Yeah, I actively supported the riots,” most of his supporters would not have cared — or worse, become even more fervent in backing him.
Modi is a smart, talented politician. He kept his campaign rhetoric focused almost exclusively on economic-growth policies and cleaning up the Indian government. But it was through omission that he silently fed a promise to India’s Hindu majority that he would advance their vision of a “Hindu India.”
He was silent in not rebuking anti-Muslim elements in his party, silent in not apologizing for the government’s failure in 2002 and silent about various state laws advancing Hindu doctrine as official. These silences were noted by supporters, and they validated feelings of xenophobia, even if he tiptoed along the line of plausible deniability, keeping the culprit officially ambiguous.
The difference between Modi and Trump is that with Trump, there is no ambiguity. Indeed, Trump’s tactics are almost the opposite of Modi’s, because he’s putting a spotlight on fear backed up by vague policy proposals. Mexicans, Muslims, refugees — all have been singled out at one time or another for somehow being the culprits for America’s supposedly lost greatness. If the US were quite as overwhelmingly white as India is Hindu, we would likely be facing a much clearer-cut repeat of circumstances.
Trump also declared that he believes he could commit an extreme act like shooting someone in the street and not expect to lose any voters. Trump’s clearly invigorated support base seems to bear out his theory. This also holds true with Modi supporters. While Modi had the political savvy to deny any alleged malfeasance in relation to the riots, many of his supporters already made peace with a world where he may have been guilty of murder. (Although as much as this might be construed as complimentary of their respective supporters’ loyalty, it actually damns their ethical resolve).
The type of Modi supporters I described have another attribute in common with many Trump supporters: a shared passion they call patriotism, but which is actually thinly veiled bigotry.
I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of Indians who supported Modi in 2014 and those Americans supporting Trump now respectively love their country deeply and view their guy as the right choice. But they have also done what many of us do when we are in love: ignore warning signs and see the world as we want it to be rather than as it actually is.
Ultimately, India and the United States are by no means the same places, and their two elections are very different. But another thing I have learned from watching such different cultures go to the polls is that people everywhere generally want the same things. If the status quo does not feel like it is working, I am no longer surprised to see even a seemingly radical alternative win out.
Trump is generally considered to be behind Clinton, but if he can exceed expectations the way Modi did in India’s election, then he will win. Just look at the Brexit decision, which was widely seen as unlikely by commentators.
Thus, my lesson from India: At any time, we are capable of creating any outcome.
Thane Richard is a writer and science teacher based in Detroit, MI. He also works on a global education project, Project Empathy, spun off of his former role at Outernet. The views expressed are his own.