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Sanjaya Baru
Sanjaya Baru


Orange and saffron black swans

Much has been written about the similarities between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States president-elect Donald Trump. While Modi’s fans draw attention to the fact that both leaders challenged the existing ‘liberal’ establishment in their respective national capitals and succeeded in displacing them, his critics believe both are ‘right-wing’ megalomaniacs. Few, however, have drawn attention to what may well be the real similarity between the two leaders. Their unpredictability. The victory of both Modi and Trump is akin to a ‘black swan’ event in politics. A black swan event is defined as a deviation from what is normally expected.

Even an astute ‘right-wing’, hardcore Republican strategist like Henry Kissinger, who has built an incredible reputation for knowing something about what is happening around the world, had to confess in a television interview: “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen. So it is a shocking experience to them that he came into office. At the same time, extraordinary opportunity.”

Kissinger is being economical with the truth. Trump has not just been “a shocking experience” for the world. He has been a shocking and a totally destabilising experience for his own country. When senior Harvard Medical School professors of psychiatry recently wrote to President Barack Obama suggesting that Trump be examined for mental instability, what they really meant was that he has upset the stability of existing mental calculations. His critics have not even got used to the orange colour of his skin!

Look at all the unexpected things he has already done. While appointing an American politician who has a close personal equation with Chinese President Xi Jinping as US ambassador to China, Trump dialled the president of the Republic of Taiwan. With that just one hello he has reaffirmed the pivot to Asia and thrown China off-balance.


It was like Modi’s invitation to the prime minister of Pakistan for his swearing-in ceremony, accompanied by a similar invitation to a representative of the Tibetan government in exile. No one expected Modi to do something like that. He did. Both like to be unpredictable. That, at least, is now predictable.

Trump has done other unexpected things, displaying that a US president has more freedom in the appointments he makes than an Indian prime minister. He has named the CEO of the US oil major ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his secretary of state. When the Chinese seized a US undersea drone in the South China Sea and said they were willing to return the debris, he said ‘keep it’.

Expect more unpredictability. Disruption is the name of the game. Like Modi’s demonetisation. A data science analyst who looks at political big data and seeks trends out to make projections says the Trump phenomenon is a clear black swan event because he has done the unexpected and so should be expected to do the undone, so to speak. With lifelong business leaders and active military men now ministers in a civilian government headed by an entrepreneur who has rarely trodden the beaten path, he says, the past is of no use in trying to understand the future.

Kissinger has another interesting remark on Trump. He is “asking a lot of unfamiliar questions,” the master strategist says. That’s the thing about Modi and Trump. It’s not just that they have unexpected answers to old questions. They are asking unfamiliar questions. That unsettles even psychiatrists. So, while the Harvard psychiatrists want Trump’s head examined, Trump may well get back and appoint a high level committee to examine whether psychiatry is nothing more than just hocus-pocus. Take it from me, there would be many knowledgeable people who would say it is!

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Topics : #Last Word | #opinion

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