Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (30 January, 2017)
The day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the new president of the United States, I was in Bhubaneswar speaking at a literary festival. It took place in a bucolic setting, under a canopy of trees in perfect weather, far away from Washington. But as often happens at these occasions, many attendees had their minds on subjects other than literature.
After I fielded a few dutiful questions about my fiction, an audience member took matters into his own hands. He delivered the first of several anxious remarks about America’s 45th president. I sighed. Even in this sylvan idyll halfway around the world, there was no escaping the Trump presidency.
Off the stage, as I roamed about the rather serene festival in a futile quest for a cup of tea, people came to me with even more thoughts and concerns about the Trump ascendancy. Unexpectedly, I found myself engaged in numerous conversations about the US. Many of these questions were practical in nature. Quite a few students asked whether universities in Trump’s America would now be less receptive to their applications, or whether there would be greater racist hostility to Indian students on American college campuses. To the best of my knowledge, neither of these outcomes seemed likely, especially the latter; the American university remains, in general, a marvellously open and tolerant space.
One young teenager, no older than 16, told me that she had always dreamed of studying in the US, but now worried that an American education would be worthless because Trump was going to deny Indians work visas. There are some valid fears here.
While it remains to be seen exactly what kind of changes to visa policy the Trump administration will enact, there are ominous clouds on the horizon for Indians keen to work in the US. “We will follow two simple rules,” Trump promised in his inauguration speech, “buy American and hire American.” He has since pledged “extreme vetting” for immigrants (as any Indian who has been to US consulate will know, how much more extreme can it get?).
Steve Bannon, a far-Right muckraker now turned Trump’s chief strategist, has complained about the number of Indians working in Silicon Valley and urged Trump to slash H-1B visas. It could very well be the case that Indians will find it more difficult to get jobs in America in the coming years.
But beyond these logistical matters, I was surprised by the almost existential dread with which many in that Bhubaneswar audience were greeting the Trump presidency. After all, this wasn’t the typical lit-fest gathering of elite cosmopolitan liberals who might be prone to wringing their hands about Trump. This was an altogether humbler, less glitzy crowd than what one encounters at similar events in bigger cities. And yet their concern was palpable. “I’m really scared,” one man told me, “terrible things will happen everywhere.” He worried about the unravelling of the liberal world order, heightened xenophobia, the rise of belligerent nationalisms, and even the onset of nuclear war.
I tried to reassure him that apocalypse wasn’t yet nigh. But secretly, I was encouraged by his pessimism. From my vantage point in New York, so much of the Indian opinion about Trump that I encounter comes from a perverse species of Right-wing Internet warrior convinced that America’s new president shares their aspirations. A fringe Indian political group’s pro-Trump antics over the course of the last year also won disproportionate attention in the American media. So it was oddly gratifying to meet so many people in Bhubaneswar who shared my disquiet at Trump’s rise.
Yes, aside from a potential reduction in visas, it seems unlikely that US foreign policy towards India will change all that much under Trump. But what I heard in Bhubaneswar wasn’t just a parochial interest in whether “Trump was good for India”. There was the recognition that the politics embodied by Trump were antithetical to the democratic, pluralist values shared by many Indians.
What happens in the US, still the world’s pre-eminent power, has the potential to shape politics elsewhere. Trump’s thin-skinned authoritarianism — how he confuses criticism for conspiracy and dissent for disorder — was a feature of his presidential campaign and looks likely to define his presidency.
His naked appeal to majoritarian white nationalism and jingoism (invoking the “red blood of patriots” and other archaic metaphors from darker times) marks a turn away from the open multiculturalism that has always represented the best in American society. Already, his raft of executive orders banning refugees and Muslims from coming to the US and pledging to build a border wall with Mexico suggests that his campaign rhetoric wasn’t just hot air.
For Indians concerned about the possibility of growing authoritarianism and communalism at home, the shadow that Trump casts isn’t just a matter of concrete policies, but of dangerous example.