What the West Needs From Modi

An alliance of democracies to contain China makes sense. But Modi needs to clean up his act.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, on Sept. 27, 2019.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, on Sept. 27, 2019. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When nuclear-armed neighbors start fighting, the whole world gets nervous. Security analysts’ biggest worry has long been the unstable rivalry between India and Pakistan, but the most dangerous powder keg in the world today may be the Line of Actual Control dividing India and China. For decades, a tacit no-shooting rule has maintained a precarious peace, even as dozens of troops have been killed in vicious hand-to-hand fighting using clubs and stones. Now, guns have finally been fired (if only in the air), and although India and China each blame the other for firing first, both sides are moving troops into the region, not out.

In the lopsided struggle in Ladakh in the western Himalayas, India must confront a nascent superpower while simultaneously keeping an eye on its traditional adversary, Pakistan. China spends more than three times as much as India on defense and has a massive technological advantage to boot. It also has relations with Pakistan that are as close as “lips and teeth,” as their leaders like to say. On the other side of the balance sheet, India has greater experience with high-altitude conflict, shorter supply lines, and increasingly friendly ties with three fellow democracies: the United States, Japan, and Australia.

The growing role of India in U.S. strategic thinking is reflected in the 2018 rebranding of the venerable U.S. Pacific Command into Indo-Pacific Command, which is increasingly focused on containing Beijing’s newfound expansionism in the era of Chinese President Xi Jinping. India is looking to the United States to play a key role in modernizing India’s armed forces, recently purchasing Apache and Seahawk helicopters for its Army and Navy, respectively. India has conducted joint exercises with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, and persistent rumors suggest that Australia may join India, the United States, and Japan in the annual naval exercises off India’s Malabar coast—if they aren’t canceled due to COVID-19.
If Modi wants to see unequivocal Western support for India’s stand against China, he’ll have to clean up his act.

That’s all very cozy, but it is far short of a real military alliance. The democratic Quad (the name comes from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, set up between Australia, India, the United States, and Japan in 2007 as an informal consultation mechanism) is still more an aspiration than a reality. The United States is leading a push for more cooperation, which will likely be on the table when the four meet later this month.

But obstacles remain. One of the most serious is that supporters of the Quad as an alignment of democracies do not necessarily admire India’s charismatic but controversial prime minister, Narendra Modi. From an international relations standpoint, it makes perfect sense for democracies to work together to balance and contain China. But democracies, by definition, have their own internal politics. And in the internal politics of the West, many see Modi as an anathema.

With a 78 percent approval rating in a country of 1.35 billion people, Modi may just be the most popular man in the world. Despite gratuitously repressive coronavirus shutdowns, an economy that was already slowing before the virus hit, and a thoroughly mismanaged demonetization campaign, Modi’s popularity has not suffered during his six years in office. Though he and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) he leads are widely perceived as being Hindu nationalist and even anti-Muslim, only 5 percent of those polled in India Today’s annual Mood of the Nation survey rated his performance as “poor”—in a country that is roughly 15 percent Muslim.

Whatever India’s own Muslims—who did rate Modi significantly lower in the India Today poll—think of the prime minister, many Western liberals loathe him. So, too, do many secular, English-speaking Indian intellectuals. These critics loom large in Western policy debates. Whether Modi likes it or not, he has to mollify them—or at least give his supporters in the West some firm ground to stand on in pushing back against his critics. If Modi wants to see unequivocal Western support for India’s stand against China, he’ll have to clean up his act. No matter how strong his democratic mandate, Modi has to put the “liberal” back into India’s liberal democracy.

India is, of course, the world’s most populous democracy. It is also the world’s 22nd-oldest democracy and the longest-standing democracy in the developing world. Freedom House rates it as one of only three fully free countries between South Korea and Israel (the others are Mongolia and Taiwan). The Economist Intelligence Unit considers it a “flawed democracy,” but it says the same of the United States and Japan. That’s not bad for a country with a GDP per capita of only around $2,000, which makes India one of the world’s poorest democracy as well.

Yet many mainstream Western media believe that Indian democracy is imperiled or dying, that India is at best a 40 percent democracy, or that it is a fascistic democracy going down the road of Nazi Germany. Some even argue that Modi is more dangerous than Adolf Hitler. Others claim that India’s “current situation is already worse than Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency in the mid-1970s,” when for nearly two years in that period the staunchly secular, supposedly liberal Indian National Congress party ruled by decree, outlawed opposition, imprisoned opponents, censored the press, and implemented a program of forced sterilization of the poor.

Those are powerful criticisms, and they pose serious problems for an India that is increasingly looking for friends in Washington and other Western capitals. U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration seem very comfortable with Modi’s India, but presidential challenger Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris have taken a much tougher line, demanding the restoration of full civil rights in Kashmir and criticizing the Citizenship Amendment Act that sparked riots and lynchings in Delhi and elsewhere late last year and earlier this year. Across the Atlantic, the European Parliament nearly voted on a resolution condemning India over the controversial law before ultimately deciding to shelve it.

India’s Supreme Court has repeatedly turned down requests to stay the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been labeled anti-Muslim by its critics. The law offers a pathway to citizenship for refugees fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—as long as they are not Muslim. On its face, that’s almost reasonable: Why should Muslims need asylum from religious persecution in these Muslim-majority countries? Dig a little deeper, and the law can be seen as an effort to cast doubt on the citizenship status of members of India’s own Muslim minority population, many of whom may legitimately fear deportation.
The problem isn’t the religious sentiment of the law—the problem is its illiberal execution.

The Citizenship Amendment Act well illustrates the dilemma facing Modi and the BJP. India is a democracy, and the BJP was elected (resoundingly) on a platform that explicitly promised citizenship to “Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians escaping persecution from India’s neighbouring countries.” Polling suggests that more than a third of India’s own Muslims actually support the law, though a wide majority see the law as broadly anti-Muslim. And the United States has similar policies, for example offering asylum specifically to Christians and Yazidis from Iraq. Refugee advocates have even decried the Trump administration’s decision to scale back these religion-based programs that effectively exclude Muslims coming from this Muslim-majority country. So what’s the problem?

The problem isn’t the religious sentiment of the law. The problem is its illiberal execution. Instead of being presented as a plan to protect refugees who qualify, the Citizenship Amendment Act has been wielded as a weapon against Muslims who do not qualify. It has been rolled out in conjunction with an update to the citizenship registry that has seen nearly 2 million people newly identified as stateless in northeast India’s Assam province. When protests broke out, they were repressed under anti-terrorism laws, yet police reportedly turned a blind eye to violent Hindu nationalist counterprotests that killed dozens of Muslims. None of this makes Modi look good in the West.

Along similar lines, Modi’s government was simply fulfilling a popular election promise when it passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act last year, ending 70 years of uncertainty over the status of Muslim-majority Kashmir and converting it into two union territories under direct central government supervision. Pakistan regularized its rule over the portion of Kashmir it administers as long ago as 1948—some might say that it is about time India did the same. But when the Modi government supposedly regularized the status of Indian-administered Kashmir, it cut the region off from the world, shutting off phone and internet service and imposing a supposedly two-day curfew that has lasted more than a year.

As with the Citizenship Amendment Act, the revocation of Kashmir’s special status is not in itself indefensible. It might even be portrayed as a positive development for Indian democracy. But the clumsy, heavy-handed, profoundly illiberal approach taken by the Modi government in each of these cases has made it difficult for his erstwhile international boosters to support him. Part of the problem is probably poor execution: In a country as decentralized and underdeveloped as India, it can be difficult to find enough talented, qualified people to implement the government’s policies in a responsible way. But part of the problem is also Modi himself.
A slightly less confrontational, slightly more liberal BJP could make India much more successful on the world stage.

Modi and his senior BJP colleagues often seem to delight in provoking their opponents and inciting their supporters, even if it brings the opprobrium of the Western media down upon them too. They may believe that thumbing their noses at Western finger-waggers can only win them more votes at home. That may be true, but it won’t win them the support they will need in their standoff with China. A slightly less confrontational, slightly more liberal BJP could make India much more successful on the world stage.

Given all the other challenges Modi faces, an embarrassing defeat at the hands of China high in the Himalayas might be the straw that finally breaks his hold on Indian politics. To ensure Western political support against China, Modi has to moderate his exercise of power in India. The BJP will never be a secular party, but it can become a more liberal party, and for most Western governments, that would be enough. For most Indians, that would be a boon, expanding opportunities for political participation while securing freedom of expression. The BJP prides itself on being a reformist party. The most difficult reform—and possibly the most important—is for the party to reform itself.

Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola