By Jeremy W. Peters
New York Times
Your typical Trump rally this was not.
First there was the ritual Hindu fire, a yagna, which burned in his honor. Then there were the posters, standard Donald Trump head shots except for a touch of artistic interpretation: a tilak, the red dot symbolic of the spiritual third eye in Hindu culture, smudged on his forehead.
This celebration of Trump in New Delhi in May, and others like it in India this year, are the work of a small, devoted and increasingly visible faction of Hindu nationalists in India and the United States who see Trump as the embodiment of the cocksure, politically incorrect, strongman brand of politics they admire.
That some of Trump’s most passionate followers are Indian may seem, at first, somewhat strange, given how fond he is of scorning Asian countries where cheap labor saps demand for American workers. A poll on Asian-Americans’ political leanings conducted in August and September found that just 7 percent of Indian-Americans said they would vote for Trump.
But in one of the more peculiar pairings of this most peculiar political season, Trump has unwittingly fashioned a niche constituency in the overlap between the Indian right and the American right, which share a lot of the same anxieties about terrorism, immigration and the loss of prestige that they believe their leaders have been too slow to reverse.
“There’s a lot of parallels there,” said Shalabh Kumar, founding chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition. “Mr. Trump is all about development, development, development; prosperity, prosperity, prosperity; tremendous job growth. And at the same time, he recognizes the need to control the borders.”
As one of Trump’s biggest Hindu financial backers, Kumar, who runs an electronics manufacturing company in Illinois and grew up in the state of Punjab along the Pakistani border, has helped organize a speech by the Republican nominee in Edison, New Jersey, at a Bollywood-themed charity concert on Saturday. The proceeds will benefit terrorism victims.
“It will be an incredible evening,” Trump said in a video promoting it, one of the few ethnic events he has agreed to do during this campaign.
Trump may be largely indifferent to the reasons behind his Hindu loyalists’ fervor, but his most senior advisers are not. The campaign’s chief executive, Stephen K. Bannon, is a student of nationalist movements. Bannon is close to Nigel Farage, a central figure in Britain’s movement to leave the European Union, and he is an admirer of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist Bannon has called “the Reagan of India.”
It may be pure coincidence that some of Trump’s words channel the nationalistic and, some argue, anti-Muslim sentiments that Modi stoked as he rose to power. But it is certainly not coincidental that many of Trump’s biggest Hindu supporters are also some of Modi’s most ardent backers.
At times, the similarity of Trump’s and Modi’s political vocabulary is striking. Modi fed the perception that India’s feckless leaders had failed to allow the country to reach its full potential. And he campaigned as the only one capable of fixing that.
“I will make such a wonderful India that all Americans will stand in line to get a visa for India,” he said once. A centerpiece of his agenda is the “Make in India” program, which is aimed at stimulating economic growth by encouraging more manufacturing in the country.
“It’s all about India first, or ‘Make India Great,’” said Sujeeth Draksharam, a civil engineer from Houston who supports Trump and planned to attend Saturday’s event. “Look at Donald Trump. It’s the same thing. ‘Make American Great Again’ — strong again.”
Another similarly powerful sentiment that both leaders have harnessed is grievance. Trump has seized on how the working class feels out of place and left behind in a country that is changing demographically and economically.
Even if Modi’s appeals were never as crass as Trump’s, his followers say he always understood that many Hindus felt their concerns were ignored by India’s secular and, in their minds, deeply corrupt government, which Modi vowed to clean up.
“One of the things that Modi very subtly articulated, but was very clear about, was something which nobody wanted to say,” said Subramanian Swamy, a longtime Indian politician and Hindu nationalist who is often a thorn in the side of the country’s political elite. “And that is that Hindus, despite being 80 percent of the population, feel like they got a raw deal.”
But perhaps the strongest link between Trump’s speech and the Hindu nationalists who find his politics so comforting is the issue of terrorism and how bluntly Trump is willing to confront Muslim communities about it. Terrorism committed by Islamic extremists is a scourge that has rattled India as well, from the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that left 172 dead to the ambush killings of 20 Indian soldiers last month at an army base near the border with Pakistan.
Trump’s brand of tough talk, scholars said, gives some Indians a sense that he would be much harder on the country’s longtime adversary, Pakistan.
“What Donald Trump articulates has given them some food for thought,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “If there is a Trump presidency, then there might be a stronger Washington policy vis-a-vis Pakistan.”
When Trump arrives at the Hindu charity gala in New Jersey on Saturday, the estimated 10,000 guests will be taking in a performance with Bollywood stars, a Hindu art temple and exhibitions honoring the contribution of Hindus to math and science.
Kumar, the Republican Hindu Coalition founder, said neither he nor Trump was naive about the fact that most Indian-Americans vote for Democrats. But there could be a few, he said, who hear Trump on Saturday and discover his message is not all that unfamiliar.
What Trump should probably not expect is the kind of fawning reception he has gotten from his small bands of followers in New Delhi. There was the time in June when a right-wing group known as the Hindu Sena decided to celebrate his 70th birthday. Absent Trump, who was in North Carolina that day, they improvised and fed a life-size Trump cutout a piece of cake.