The rise and rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in popular American imagination has had commentators scrambling all over the place. In the early stages, these were supposed to be transitory phenomena, Trump’s rise all the more so, but that prediction turned out to be dead wrong. But all along, there was supposed to very little that was common to their still inexplicable ascent. Of late, though, there has been growing consensus about the existence of a common, fundamental underlying commonality between their campaigns – that of the frustrated white male voter.
A frustrated voter in a democracy is hardly something new. But numerically, there has been enough evidence presented to confirm that the average white male voter is angrier than any other demographic. He also has other definitive characteristics. Often, he is poor or lower middle class. He is inadequately educated and has a decidedly narrow set of experiences and exposures. His religion, almost always Christianity, is losing prominence in his God-saved country. Being white and a man, he has rarely been subject to systematic social exploitation (although anger at economic exploitation is widely prevalent). However, in the end, all of these are tied together by just one attribute – anger. This could be, and has been, ascribed to a variety of understandable factors – a dismal economy, growing inequality, institutional flaws, growing cultural diversity and so on. There have been more radical explanations as well, pointing towards the denial of a privilege that this demographic has enjoyed for a long time. Of course, all these explanations may seem contrived to suit the situation at hand, but the fact remains that a nontrivial group of angry white males exists and they have defining characteristics that one can ascribe with reasonable certainty.
An interesting parallel to this phenomenon can be seen in India as well. The rise of the Hindu right is a well-documented event in modern Indian history. Commentators and historians point toward the patriotic passions fanned during the freedom struggle and the communal tensions carried on from the partition as primary factors aiding the Hindu right’s march to prominence. But most explanations fail to encapsulate how it has managed, of late, to capture the popular imagination, cutting across regions, cultures and even caste, to an extent. Half a century after Independence, the Hindu right manages to hold sway on the lives of tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of Hindus, to the point that a staunch Hindu nationalist (remarkably much less belligerent after capturing power than before) has formed a majority government.
Even though one must keep in mind that the Indian setting differs from the American setting in numerous ways, it is possible to argue that the Hindu right exerts this level of influence chiefly due to an underlying phenomenon that is very similar to the anger of the white male that drives the Trump and Sanders juggernauts – the resentment of the Hindu male. Their ire has been stoked over decades by a wily and opportunist group of extreme ideologues and perhaps, it is the secularists and reformists of those times that have unwittingly been the greatest contributors to the ammunition used by the Hindu right to ensnare this group. Affirmative policies of the Congress party that played to its minority vote bank, inadequate dialogue and interaction between the secular liberals in power and moderate Hindu ideologues, pervasive corruption, and the iniquitous economic growth post liberalization, have all led to widespread disillusionment. This has coincided with a national political vacuum, wherein no serious contender to challenge the Congress had emerged in the national arena.
It is in this setting that the BJP, and various other socially and politically Hindu groups, have swooped in to unite the bitter Hindu male. He has defining traits that are reminiscent of the angry white male. He is largely poor or middle class, with an education that miserably fails to present Indian society in all its complexity. He has seen deep religious traditions and customs eroded over time, including the ones abruptly snatched by gender and religious equality, without him having access to reasonable explanations (which, even if he does gain access to, he anyway cannot appreciate due to his education not being wholesome). Neo-liberalism plays to his dissatisfaction with the old socialist state that has caused such widespread corruption, stagnation and exploitation.
His outrage has been consciously directed incrementally in a multiplicity of directions – the smug educated city liberal that is polluting India’s culture with rationality and westernization, the cunning Muslim bent on destroying his sister’s life with love jihad, the invisible foreign actors, appearing in the form of NGOs, whose sole aim is to break India into a million fragments, the “mainstream media” that is playing to the tune of these villains, and so on. All of this aligns well with the narrative that the average Trump supporter, and a surprisingly large section of the Sanders base, has been subjected to on a daily basis over the years. Disdain for the rational, liberal elites, disgust at movements like feminism (“feminazi” being the preferred term) and Black Lives Matter and their attempts to divide and marginalize, Islamophobia, xenophobic (and hypocritical) discrimination against refugees, distrust of the press, and more, fit into a narrative that is strikingly similar to the one that the Hindu right has been presenting to gain widespread acceptance. In both cases, the public has lapped it up, partly due to its apparent completeness and partly due to the paralysis, corruption and moral perversion haunting those that could have launched an alternative account.