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What Modi Risks With His Divisive Populism

India’s Authoritarian Streak By Manjari Chatterjee Miller

Since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, India has grown deeply divided along ideological and religious lines. Under his watch, Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has issued populist policies that harm religious minorities and dissenters, and its officials have largely remained silent about violence against such groups. In some instances, they have even gone so far as to laud such behavior.

In August 2015, Malleshappa Kalburgi, an Indian scholar who criticized Hindu idolatry, was murdered by Hindu right-wing groups. His death was later celebrated on Twitter by activists from Bajrang Dal, another right-wing Hindu group whose members are strong supporters of Modi.

Later that year, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was killed by a Hindu mob for allegedly committing the “sin” of eating beef. After the incident, Mahesh Sharma, a minister in the Modi government, insisted that the murder of Akhlaq was merely “the result of a misunderstanding.”

In 2017, after the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh, a prominent critic of Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP government accused opposition leaders of trying to “make political capital” out of the situation.

In all of these cases, the prime minister failed to issue a statement of condolence or condemnation, leading the well-known Indian actor Prakash Raj to condemn Modi’s silence as “chilling.”

This year, after the horrific rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu men who were determined to drive her community from their village, Modi only issued a condemnation after facing mounting pressure from opposition groups.

The Indian government and Hindu nationalist activists now routinely suppress dissent and label protesters as “anti-national.”

In India, religious and political intolerance, as well as authoritarianism, is not the sole province of the BJP. In 1984, when the purportedly secular Congress Party held power, it allegedly looked the other way as Hindu mobs slaughtered Sikhs en masse following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

There is a key difference, however, between the transgressions of Modi’s forebears and his own: personal credibility. Modi is the only Indian prime minister to have such a nebulous record on human rights before taking national office.

As chief minister of Gujarat, he faced accusations in the Indian Supreme Court for deliberately failing to protect Muslims during the religious violence there in 2002 and was banned from traveling to the United States. His Supreme Court case was eventually dismissed, and Washington hastily lifted the visa ban after he was elected prime minister, but Modi remains a polarizing figure—more popular than any other Indian political figure today but also mistrusted by large sections of Indians.


Many, particularly in the BJP, see nonalignment not only as Nehru’s greatest mistake, which led him into an unwinnable war with Beijing, but also as a position unsuited for dealing with the current power dynamics. India is now seeking a more assertive foreign policy because of its belief that the United States and the West are in decline and because of its deep unease about Chinese ambitions, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, where New Delhi needs to assiduously guard its interests.

Nonalignment established India as a leading, independent power, one that did not have to take ideological sides during the Cold War and gave it the freedom to pursue security and economic ties with any country it wished. Shifting away from this powerful identity as a nonaligned nation would require India to carefully articulate its grand strategic framework in this post–Cold War world—something the BJP government has yet to offer.

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Although most rising powers are regarded with suspicion, India has escaped this fate. It is seen as a benign rising power, one whose ascent, unlike China’s, will strengthen the international liberal order-not challenge it. This reputation, which is now under threat, is based on its democracy, tolerance of diversity, and willingness to champion morality and challenge superpower hypocrisy. It has given India leeway to boldly carve its own path, enabling it to take stances that would have jeopardized the standing of any other country.

India has often been able to take unconventional positions with impunity. It steadfastly refused to establish a diplomatic relationship with Israel until 1992, citing its opposition to religious nationalism and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Although no Indian prime minister had ever set foot in Israel until Narendra Modi visited last year, India was never criticized by the international community for taking an anti-Israel stance.

In the South Asia region, India fought four wars with Pakistan and intervened in Sri Lanka’s civil war, all without incurring an international reputation as an aggressor. Even when India engages in human rights abuses such as in Kashmir, or rejects emerging global norms such as the “responsibility to protect,” or is truculent on climate change, it is seen as a global player, as a sometimes recalcitrant but not revisionist power.

This reputation is one of the reasons why India is moving closer to being admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), despite refusing to be party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (a treaty that all the other NSG members have signed) and railing for years against nonproliferation, calling it a neocolonial tool wielded by the nuclear “haves” (members of the NSG).

It is clear that India has thus far taken its reputation for granted, but Modi now risks damaging it through his government’s divisive policies, both at home and abroad.

The article was first published in FP

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