Donald Trump's association with India stretches back to the 1990s
He's been lashing out at numerous countries during his campaign, but not India so far
Some see parallels between the rise of Trump and the election of Narendra Modi
Most Indians – about a sixth of the world’s population – have never heard of Donald Trump. But that may be about to change, at least a little.
If you walk past any roadside magazine stand here in New Delhi you may see a reddish-orange face peering out at you, printed prominently on the fronts of Indian publications.
Just recently, two of India’s top English-language weeklies ran cover stories on the U.S. elections.
Outlook magazine’s cover “Donald Trump: American Nightmare” had a caricature of a grimacing, enraged Trump dominating the full page. “Loud. Brash. Divisive. Insensitive. Xenophobic.” it declared. Open magazine had a blue-tinted Hillary Clinton pitted against a red-colored Donald Trump. “The American Scream,” blared the cover.
It’s the world’s biggest democracy meeting the world’s greatest election.
Krishna Prasad, the editor of Outlook, says Indian magazines often put American presidents on their covers but it’s rare to give a mere candidate that treatment, especially with seven months left to election day.
“For us Trump was an excuse to put a mirror in front of Indians,” he says, pointing to what he sees as parallels between the rise of Trump and the election of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister in 2014. “Both were outsiders, and both ran on a demonstrable record of getting things done,” says Prasad.
“Modi and Trump tapped into the angst of the people. Trump’s racist comments mirror things that have been said here as well,” he adds, pointing to recent comments by ruling-party parliamentarians on Islam.
The editor of Open, S. Prasannarajan, says that the only Indians who are familiar with Trump are English-speaking urban elites. “The common man doesn’t know him. But that may soon change,” says Prasannarajan.
“Trump’s name has a certain ring to it. After Obama, Trump is going to be the latest American catchphrase,” he says. “Trump is a brand. Like Coca-Cola.”
Nothing projects Brand Trump louder than a gleaming new building towering over India’s slums. There are two officially branded Trump Towers in India, both on the country’s western coast – in the cities of Pune and Mumbai.
I spoke with Prashant Bindal, the Chief Sales officer of the Lodha Group, which is building Trump Towers Mumbai. Trump Mumbai is not owned by Trump. According to Bindal, Trump’s role is primarily to lend his name to the towers, a franchise deal where the Lodha Group can use Trump’s logos and designs. “We have the classic Trump golden façade, the club, the services – it stands out,” says Bindal.
Trump Mumbai began construction in 2013 and is expected to open by the end of 2018. According to Bindal, the Lodha Group has sold 200 apartment residences so far, out of a total of 300. The apartments are being sold at a 30% premium over other similar properties constructed by the group.
“The association that Trump provides is his power,” says Bindal. “Buyers say it is his ability to stand out. They are lapping it up. They have seen his properties in New York and Dubai and they want the same prestige here.”
A standard 1,300 square foot, two-bedroom Trump Mumbai apartment is currently selling for $1.5 million. It’s a similar story in Pune, where Trump Tower apartments are attracting a 30% premium over the market. Writing in Outlook, the builder of Trump Towers Pune describes how he met The Donald himself in 2014, on his first visit to India. “Trump sees huge business potential in India … his business dealings are great. His politics will be even better.”
Trump’s association with India predates his buildings here: the businessman has long recognized the power of one of India’s top brands. As far back as 1990 he opened Trump Taj Mahal, a garish Atlantic City casino and resort inspired by the 17th century Indian mausoleum of the same name.
Trump and India
Trump the candidate has been bashing China, lashing out at Mexico, declaring how he will carpet bomb ISIS hideouts in the Middle East … but on India, he has spoken little. When he has, it’s been surprisingly positive, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer recently that “India is doing great … (but) no one talks about India.” And yet, as Indians learn more about Trump they will see a side of the GOP frontrunner they may find hurtful.
On January 24, at a campaign event in Muscatine, Iowa, Trump’s speech was interrupted by a couple of protestors holding up a banner reading “STOP HATE.” According to a CNN report from that day, one of the protestors was a member of the Sikh faith, and was wearing a red turban.
As he was being escorted out, Trump played to the gallery. “He wasn’t wearing one of those hats, was he?” he said, before adding ominously: “And he never will. He never will. And that’s OK because we have to do something. It’s not working.”
India is home to some 21 million Sikhs, about 90% of the entire global population of the religion’s members. News of the Sikh protestor’s eviction made news in India, but only fleetingly.
There is an even larger constituency in India that will worry greatly about Trump’s pronouncements: Muslims. India has about 170 million Muslims – more than the combined populations of Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
In a March interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump declared “Islam hates us.” Pressing further at a Republican debate the same week, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump if he indeed meant to say that all 1.6 billion Muslims around the world hated Americans. “I mean a lot of them. A lot of them,” Trump replied. The audience applauded.
Trump: ‘I think Islam hates us’
Mihir Joshi, a musician and talk show host who lives in Mumbai, told CNN that he would not feel safe traveling to America.
“I have a beard, I have dark skin, I could be mistaken for a Muslim and what, every time I enter America I have to prove I’m not a Muslim? How do you go about that? When you hear some of the things he says it does sound like he’s a fascist.”
The paradox of why Americans are so polarised in their opinions on Trump are mirrored in India too: Indians also look up to Trump. “Trump evokes all kinds of feelings in India,” says Prasannarajan of Open magazine.
“He evokes admiration too. Indians admire his popularity, his success, his wealth. Indians aren’t impacted by the Mexican border – they are more taken by the idea of a strong leader who isn’t always politically correct.”
As the Republican field for the presidential nomination narrows, India is waking up to the story of America’s elections. Trump the man, candidate, and brand now has more exposure than ever before. In that sense, the American experience may just be a microcosm of a larger global project – extending the brand to the farthest reaches of the planet, in the fastest growing economies of the world.