At eight o’clock in the evening on November 8th, India Standard Time, just hours before American voters shocked the world by electing Donald Trump as their next President, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, went on television to address his country’s more than a billion citizens. At midnight, Modi proclaimed, all of India’s five-hundred-rupee and thousand-rupee notes, worth about seven dollars and fifteen dollars, respectively, and constituting about eighty-six per cent of all cash in circulation, would be banned from use, in an effort to battle corruption. He said that cash was easier for terrorists to use, and that other lawbreakers used it to evade taxes and store ill-gotten wealth.
Modi’s government gave virtually no forewarning of its demonetization plan, or notebandi, as it has become known, in order to prevent crooked cash hoarders from offloading their savings in advance of the change. People were allowed to turn in the discontinued bills at banks, but had to navigate complicated rules and risked having to explain exactly where the money came from. So the announcement had a storybook quality, as in the tale of some kingdom where, one morning, the subjects wake up to learn that their monarch has banned hats or dessert.
The result since then has been financial chaos and suffering. The cash ban has produced a sharp retraction in India’s economic growth. The government also botched the introduction of alternative notes, including a newly designed five-hundred-rupee note and a new two-thousand-rupee denomination. When I travelled through three Indian cities last week, it was still hard to find rupees, and it was not unusual to see clusters of people around A.T.M.s, scuffling or just staring forlornly at the machines. The sectors of the Indian economy where cash has long been king—real estate, automotive sales, even newspaper advertising by small businesses—remain stricken. Sales of motorcycles fell by more than twenty per cent in December, and the housing market suffered even worse falls.
For a traveller from what will soon be Donald Trump’s America, the most striking part of notebandi, however, involves its political aesthetics. On Friday, when Trump is inaugurated as President, he will join Modi as the latest figure in the world’s swelling ranks of populist-nationalist leaders, a gallery of strongmen in countries rich and poor, some more democratic and some less so, who govern partly through intimidation and a certain curated arbitrariness, a methodology of deliberate surprise.
Modi is the leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which won a majority in parliament in national elections held in 2014. He has encouraged a cult of personality—last week, he took criticism for releasing a calendar featuring on its cover a photograph of himself in an iconic pose of the independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. Modi’s particular form of illiberalism bears reflection because parallels are often drawn between the democracies of India and America, and for good reason. Both countries are religiously and ethnically diverse, yet both have forged a noisy form of political stability through their democratic constitutions and the staging of regular, mostly clean elections. Both now will be led by egotists who pressure the press and react poorly to dissent, and whose exclusionary rhetoric and policies threaten their nations’ core inheritances of openness and pluralism.
From India, the Trump transition looks all too familiar. The President-elect has a son-in-law as a key adviser and a daughter sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders, and he has drawn very loose borders between the ruling family’s business interests and its exercise of political power. From Pakistan to Indonesia, that is altogether normal.
Worryingly, South Asian populism of the Modi type can be deeply resilient, despite broken promises and poor governance. Many of the journalists, political analysts, and academics I met last week said that, despite the failures of notebandi’s rollout, the program remained remarkably popular and does not appear to have dented Modi’s standing. (Forthcoming state elections in the populous states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh will test this assumption.) Poor Indians tell reporters who turn up to measure their dissatisfaction with Modi’s ban that they never had much cash in the first place. Middle-class citizens who try to play by the rules (no easy feat in India, where petty corruption and political targeting is rife) clearly take satisfaction from the possibility that their more corrupt compatriots may lose illicit savings and be forced to pay taxes in the future. “It’s the kind of simple and radical idea that appeals both to Modi and many Indians,” Sukumar Ranganathan, the editor of Mint, a leading business newspaper, told me.
Populist politics is often constructed from a blend of nativism, bigotry, grandiosity, and coarse speech. Yet its aesthetic has an intimate quality. By banning cash with a symbolic sweep of his hand, Modi reached into the pockets of almost every Indian, as another journalist I spoke with last week put it. The Prime Minister made himself felt. India is racked by severe poverty and hindered by illiteracy; many citizens in the countryside cannot name a world leader or even their own national leader. After November 8th, many more knew Modi’s name.
Donald Trump’s Twitter feed operates similarly, if in a different context. Americans wake up every morning and find the leader’s unpredictable voice in their social-media feeds—exhorting, bragging, promising, ranting, bullying. It is common to critique Trump’s Twitter feed as a tool he uses to change the subject when he is having a bad week, but it is more than that: he reaches into your phone and makes himself felt.
In the cases of Modi and Trump, two recently empowered strongmen presiding over relatively robust democratic systems, the question is whether their populism and authoritarian instincts will allow them to alter the laws of democratic accountability. Trump is already altering certain norms—about the access of the press, conflicts of interest, and nepotism—with the acquiescence of the Republican Party. After his Inauguration, on Friday, he will preside over the largest economy and the most powerful military in the world. It is tempting to assume that accountability will eventually take hold, as in the past, whether through prosecutors and courts, if the President or his aides act illegally, or at the next election, if they govern poorly or betray the hopes of their voters. Yet the history and machinery of populist rule worldwide offers no easy comfort. Sometimes strongmen break the constitutions they inherit, or bend the functioning of those charters until they become, gradually, unrecognizable.