Mahatma Gandhi talks to a crowd in India in 1931.

Mahatma Gandhi talks to a crowd in India in 1931. Credit: AP/James A. Mills

The leaders of the world’s two largest democracies need to heed the principles of a remarkable man whose 150th birthday we are currently celebrating.

Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi, who was born on Oct. 2, 1869, left a worldwide legacy with his focus on ethics, nonviolence, tolerance and social justice. He had a profound impact on two of the most important mass mobilizations in the United States.

The influence of Gandhi on the civil rights movement actually started well before the Rev. Martin Luther King’s embrace of his ideals, with African-American activists such as Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays undertaking long sea voyages to India to meet Gandhi.

And Cesar Chavez, who modeled many of his tactics on Gandhi’s in leading the farmworkers’ movement, traced his political awakening to a newsreel he watched at the age of 11 or 12 showing that “this half-naked man without a gun had conquered the might of the British Empire.”

Outside the United States, Gandhi had a similar effect. Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai and climate change activists, to give just a few examples, have acknowledged Gandhi as a guiding light.

But President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who triumphantly addressed a joint mega-rally in Houston recently, seem to be impervious to Gandhi’s ideas, despite paying lip service to him at the event. Both are right-wing populists who have ruled with scant compassion or tolerance, successfully mobilizing whites and Hindus in their respective countries as voting blocs, and fomenting division and social antagonism.

Modi has belonged, since he was 8 years old, to a Hindu nationalist organization known as the RSS, an ex-member of which, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Gandhi on Jan. 30, 1948. Indeed, parliamentarians from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have heaped praise on Gandhi’s killer in recent years.

The Modi government’s un-Gandhian approach has manifested itself on many fronts. It has stripped the Muslim-majority province of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood and put it into lockdown. It has proven unwelcoming to the mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees who have fled from extreme persecution in Myanmar.

And Modi’s government has created an uproar by instituting a national registry of citizens and setting up detention camps in the border state of Assam to ostensibly catch noncitizens from neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, a step that may end up disenfranchising and imprisoning almost 2 million people.

Trump is singing from a similar songbook. His administration’s Muslim-majority travel ban echoes the Islamophobia that often informs Modi’s policymaking. Its callousness toward refugees mirrors the Indian government’s disdain for the Rohingya population’s suffering, and its detention camps parallel the ones the Modi regime is setting up. Trump’s stirring of racial animosity is analogous to troublesome rhetoric from a number of Modi’s cabinet members.

There was a teachable moment for the two leaders at their recent joint rally. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer at the event quoted Gandhi’s definition of democracy as “something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong.”

Trump and Modi would do very well to keep Gandhi’s advice in mind, 150 years after his birth.

Amitabh Pal of Madison, Wisconsin, is writing a book about the global rise of right-wing populism, with an emphasis on the United States and India. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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