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Friday, June 17, 2016

In the echo chamber - India, Trump and the Brexiteers

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the rigid and unwritten codes of social behaviour in the England I inhabit in my frequent trips there is to never embarrass your host/hostess. I try to adhere to this rule by being anodyne in my comments on politics and pretending that I don’t do God in my public life. 

Last month, I tripped and almost caused a near silence to descend on a small gathering. The subject seemed pretty innocuous: the Brexit referendum scheduled for June 23. Having silently heard various comments proffered by professors, MPs and other beautiful people who make up a convivial dinner gathering, I was hesitant to say my piece. After all, Brexit was entirely a British or, at best, a European problem and there was very little we could contribute to the debate except face up to the consequences of the referendum outcome. Alas, I let my guard down and told the gathering that if I were a registered voter in the United Kingdom, my vote would probably be for the UK’s departure from the European Union. 

I don’t think I said anything that outrageous. If recent opinion polls are to be believed, the Brexit camp has a clear advantage over the Remain camp. As a consequence of this shift in public opinion, Sterling has weakened somewhat and British equities have suffered on the bourses. An Indian friend returning from a seminar in Oxford remarked that while the University seemed solidly Remain, adjoining rural Oxfordshire was equally solidly Brexit. 

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is quite clear that there is a sharp division of feeling over which way to vote. Consequently, my opinions on the dinner table weren’t necessarily all that outrageous. Nor is there anything to suggest that being a ‘person of colour’ (that horrible American politically correct term) and abandoning Europe to itself were all that contradictory. My friend the Cabinet minister Priti Patel who I have long advocated should relocate to India to head the BJP is, for example, one of the three stalwarts of the Brexit campaign, along with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As an old reader of the Daily Telegraph (I think it has the best Obituaries page), I am also reassured that the campaign for national sovereignty—which is really what Brexit is really all about—also enjoys some media backing. 

Looking back, I think the reason why my rather subdued Brexit comment was thought to be a trifle odd were two-fold. First, most of my liberal, largely Labour-voting, Guardian-reading friends seem to live in an echo chamber. I would not be surprised that there was probably no one in their cosmopolitan circle of friends who would even envisage voting from Brexit. At best, their parents living in some small hamlet in the Shires and voting Conservative out of habit, were the nearest they came to associating with the Brexit ‘other’. 

The situation was eerily dissimilar to that encountered by visiting academics from overseas in the summer of 2014. They had heard that there was a momentum in favour of Narendra Modi and the BJP but, alas, they had not encountered anyone who was likely to vote on the lotus symbol. Indeed, one American confessed to me that, purely on the strength of anecdotal evidence, he imagined that the Aaam Aadmi Party would do spectacularly well. 

Just reading the reports of the Brexit referendum campaign in the Indian media, I cannot be faulted for believing that most correspondents of India-based organisations rarely step out of their comfortable, quasi-lefty echo chambers. There is another Britain (or, should I say, England) that they choose not to engage with. 

There is a second factor too. The Brexit referendum has, quite coincidentally, coincided with the astonishing success of Donald Trump in securing the Republican Party nomination for this year’s US presidential election. Trump not merely defied the wisdom of established punditry that felt he was just a nutter who would shoot himself in the foot sooner or later, he took on the established might of the Republican Establishment and won. I can’t think of a single established Republican foreign policy pundit or a think tank apparatchik—the types we usually encounter in the politico-academic circuit of Delhi—who is a Trump supporter. That doesn’t mean Trump is bereft of supporters and that his electoral performance would equal that of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace, the third candidate in 1968. The point is simply that Trump is not ‘respectable’ in the accepted sense of the term. 

The inclination to equate Trump’s overstated views on immigration, Islam and multilateral trade agreements with the Brexit camp’s concerns over immigration and national sovereignty is quite tempting. Of course, insofar as both camps look back with nostalgia at past certitudes and the days of national glory, there are convergences. There is also a meeting point of sorts between Trump’s disavowal of a cosmopolitan elite that has no real commitment to the foundational values of the US and its underlying Judaeo-Christian ethos and the anger of the Brexiteers at an unresponsive, unelected Brussels-based bureaucracy. Finally, there is also a yearning on both sides for recreating communities based on broadly common cultural assumptions and ties. 

However, what makes both Trump and the Brexiteers seem unacceptable to those mocked as the ‘Davos-set’ is not a Right-Left divide. Since the advent of Margaret Thatcher and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan, the Left and liberals have reconciled to Right wing economic impulses. Right-wing economics centred on the curtailment of the state, promotion of individual choices and the dominance of the market have now earned a place in the sun, despite the occasional sneers about neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. In the process what seems to have been intellectually outlawed are the older visions of conservatism centred on religion, community and the nation. What we are seeing with the Trump upsurge and the robust anti-EU sentiments across Europe is the restoration of traditional conservatism where economic considerations are secondary and even peripheral. 

For a very long time, the Indian intellectual establishment decried Right-wing populism. ‘If only the BJP was more committed to the economic Right’ was a familiar, even a legitimate lament. The model for the Right was, of course, borrowed from either Europe or the US. In the event that the UK walks out of the EU and Trump gives the liberal establishment a scare and even establishes a new basis of American populist exceptionalism, it will be interesting to see whether this leaves the world of cosmopolitanism unaffected. In both the UK (and indeed all over Europe) there is a vibrant and intellectually rewarding debate that is raging. This may be replicated in the US once the traditional conservative movement comes to terms with the reality of Trump. 

Since the 18th century, India has been strikingly influenced by Western intellectual debates. It will be interesting to see how it now internalises developments in the US and Europe that it never really anticipated. 

The Telegraph, June 17, 2016

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