Most Indians were still struggling then, as they are now, for basic goods such as food, clean drinking water, toilets, jobs and livable homes. But the largely upper-caste beneficiaries of liberalization proclaimed their distance from such “losers”; their New India was premised on the assumption that super-achieving and high-consuming Hindus under a strong leader will forge a country that knows how to defends its borders, to vanquish internal and external enemies, and to liquidate termites.
Notions of broader uplift and protecting the poor were being stigmatized as the hopeless obsessions of deluded lefties. A quasi-Trumpian worldview was emerging, in which society appeared a mere sum of self-aggrandizing individuals locked in fiercely zero-sum competition with one another, with winners as well as losers racked by fear, distrust and envy.
The Hindu supremacists had already unleashed a stunningly successful politics of hatred. In 1992, after having promised to wage a peaceful campaign, they demolished a 16th-century mosque and then, after decades of marginality in Indian politics, rapidly rose to power in Delhi by the end of the decade on the back of anti-Muslim violence.
Their arriviste politics was matched, and boosted, by the social and cultural ambition of many rising Indians. It would be decades before a Trump Tower was built in Mumbai, but in India’s small towns, recently moneyed but culturally insecure Indians were already raising megalomaniacal monuments to themselves. Today, India’s richest person, who owns much of the fanatically pro-Modi media and monopolizes the country’s internet services, lives in a 27-story home in Mumbai — a more eloquent symbol, in a city of slums, of Trumpian excess than any Trump tower in America.
If ostentatious architecture was one sign of India’s Trumpification, Bollywood was another. For decades, its films were known for their often sanctimonious insistence on ethical conduct. But by the late 1990s, some of Bollywood’s most successful films were showcasing gaudy, Trump-style consumerism, leavened by a hypermasculine Hinduism, in which women always knew their place. The new privately owned media further opened up possibilities of a principle-free existence by lavishly detailing the lifestyles of the rich, famous and obviously corrupt.
The eventual beneficiary of this revolution, as much moral and cultural as political, were Hindu supremacists. They conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and then threatened Pakistan with all-out war in December 2001, after a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament that some have suggested could have been a false-flag operation by India’s security agencies.
The following year, Mr. Modi set a new benchmark for the killer instinct by presiding over, as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, a pogrom that killed hundreds of Muslims and rendered homeless countless more. Condemnations, including from the United States, which denied him a visa, were soon followed by full-throated endorsements by India’s biggest businessmen of Mr. Modi as a leader who gets things done — for the biggest businessmen, at least.