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Narendra Modi is not who America thinks he is

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Picture: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Taken on June 22, 2023 – From left to right, US First Lady Jill Biden, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden wave from the Truman Balcony during a welcoming ceremony for Modi at the White House in Washington, DC. With all the fanfare in preparation for Modi’s visit and in its eagerness to welcome a potential ally in ‘Cold War II China’, scant attention has been paid to the the reality that the Indian prime minister has presided over the broadest assault on democracy, civil society and minority rights in at least 40 years – economic prosperity for a few mainly Hindu, has been accompanied by authoritarianism and repression for Muslims and those who oppose his government, the writer says.

By Maya Jasanoff

On Thursday the White House rolled out the red carpet for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to “affirm the deep and close partnership between the United States and India” and “strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific”. A state dinner and Mr Modi’s address to a joint session of Congress crowned months of fawning assessments of India by everyone from Bill Gates to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. The message couldn’t be plainer: In Cold War II with China, the United States wants India on its side.

As an American of Indian origin, I welcome the economic transformations in India that in my lifetime have slashed the number of people living in extreme poverty, swelled the middle class and modernised infrastructure (though not enough to prevent a devastating train crash this month). I’m glad, too, that the rising profiles of India and the diaspora in the United States have mitigated the ignorance and stereotypes I so often encountered while growing up, when people balked at the spicy food, gasped at the poverty, mixed up the “Hindu” religion and “Hindi” language, and could scarcely place India on a map. Deeper, wider awareness of India in this country is long overdue. The outreach to Mr Modi — the democratically elected leader of the world’s most populous nation, with polling favourability numbers recent American presidents can only dream of — appears, superficially, to make good diplomatic sense.

But here is what Americans need to know about Mr Modi’s India. Armed with a sharp-edged doctrine of Hindu nationalism, Mr Modi has presided over the nation’s broadest assault on democracy, civil society and minority rights in at least 40 years. He has delivered prosperity and national pride to some, and authoritarianism and repression of many others that should disturb us all.

Since Mr Modi took power in 2014, India’s once-proud claim to being a free democratic society has collapsed on many fronts. Of the 180 nations surveyed in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, India sits at 161, a scant three places above Russia. Its position on the Academic Freedom Index has nose-dived since Mr Modi took office, putting it on a course that sharply resembles those of other electoral autocracies. The Freedom in the World index has tracked a steady erosion of Indian citizens’ political rights and civil liberties. On the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, India has tumbled squarely into the ranks of “flawed democracies”.

A working paper from the Indian government dismisses such metrics as “perception-based”. Sadly, it is no “perception” that the government systematically harasses its critics by raiding the offices of think tanks, NGOs and media organisations, restricting freedom of entry and exit, and pressing nuisance lawsuits — most conspicuously against the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, who was recently ejected from Parliament after his conviction on a ludicrous charge of having defamed everybody named “Modi”. It is no “perception” that Muslim history has been torn from national textbooks, cities with Islamic eponyms renamed and India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, stripped of its autonomy.

Western commentators enthusing about the “new India” tend to breeze past such outrages as distractions from India’s economic growth and investment potential. But here too are troubling indicators. The share of women in the formal work force stands at around a paltry 20 percent and has shrunk during Mr Modi’s tenure. The share of wealth held by the top 1 percent has grown since he took office and is now 40.5 percent, thanks to crony capitalism resembling that of the Russian oligarchy. Unemployment is rising, the cost of basic food is surging, and government investment in healthcare is stagnating.

As for India’s readiness to partner on efforts to combat climate change — one of the Biden administration’s highest hopes — the Indian government has cracked down on climate activists and just removed evolution and the periodic table from the curriculum for under-16-year-olds in its ongoing assault on science.

The politics of Mr Modi’s India are also affecting American communities, workplaces and campuses as the Indian diaspora in the United States grows. In Edison, NJ, marchers in the annual India Day parade last August drove a wheel loader, which resembles a bulldozer, bedecked with images of Mr Modi and a far-right Indian government minister who has ordered the razing of Muslims’ homes and businesses, rendering such vehicles symbols of hate as provocative as a noose or a burning cross at a Klan rally.

At Google, upper-caste Hindus tendentiously invoked “Hinduphobia” to rescind a speaking invitation to a Dalit activist, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, accusing her of hate speech. Those involved in a major academic conference criticising Hindu nationalism were bombarded with rape and death threats. Across America there are now more than 200 chapters of the overseas arm of India’s fascist-inspired Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, of which Mr Modi is a longtime associate.

The United States has a long, deplorable history of bolstering violent, authoritarian regimes — including that of India’s archrival Pakistan during a war widely called genocidal in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It has consistently overlooked human rights abuses and democratic backsliding in strategic allies including Israel and Turkey. The invitation to Mr Modi, diplomats may say, is not intended to celebrate him or his regime but to strengthen important ties between two nations and their citizens at a critical geopolitical moment.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Mr Modi — who before he became prime minister was denied a visa to the US for allegedly condoning a massacre of Muslims in 2002 — has made himself the face of his nation, smiling benignly from billboards at every traffic circle, the sides of bus stops, the home pages of countless websites. We can be sure the photo-ops with Washington dignitaries will figure prominently in his re-election campaign next year. Far less certain is whether Mr Modi will deliver the kind of strategic or economic partnership Washington is seeking.

Healthier ways to engage with India begin with understanding that Mr Modi’s version of India is no less skewed than Donald Trump’s of the United States, even if Mr Modi has been more successful at getting the media and global elite to buy into it. (The two leaders enthusiastically celebrated each other at stadium-filling rallies in Houston and Ahmedabad, India.)

US news organisations and research institutions must continue to support vital fact-finding and reporting, to counter Indian government propaganda and misinformation about everything from humanitarian abuses to Covid mortality figures. Companies seeking to do business in India should insist their partners uphold shared values and practices of nondiscrimination. Silicon Valley can do better at pushing back against India’s increasingly autocratic digital policy, to say nothing of standing up to censorship requests — which Twitter notoriously failed to do with respect to a recent BBC documentary critical of Mr Modi.

US legislators should pass bills to make caste a protected category and educate themselves enough to avoid the error made recently by the Illinois General Assembly when it set up an Indian American Advisory Council using terms that offensively marginalised Muslims. Employers should recognise that appeals to Hindu identity and “Hinduphobia” may themselves be rooted in anti-minority and casteist campaigns. Campus administrators should be prepared for efforts by Modi-aligned factions to censor the speech and research of faculty members, students and guests.

It’s also important to recognise the diversity in all senses of the Indian American diaspora — which encompasses progressives like Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna and conservatives like Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy — and to remember that Indian Americans are a disproportionately wealthy, well-educated subset of the broader South Asian diaspora, whose constituents have distinct needs and interests.

We should hold India up as a mirror to the United States — whose own abundant problems make it easy for Mr Modi’s legions of supporters to accuse his critics of hypocrisy, racism and neocolonialism. It’s common to look to the history of European fascism for parallels with democratic breakdown in the United States in recent years, but India offers a troubling guide to how authoritarianism can sabotage a multiethnic democracy in the internet age.

Similarities abound: an out-of-touch elite, widening economic inequality, easily mobilised ethnic grievances, a changed information landscape. One especially sobering area to compare is the resilience — or lack thereof — of a once independent judiciary, which Mr Modi has been angling to undercut.

Like the United States, India is an extraordinary, diverse, plural democracy with incredible talent and potential — and there is much, in principle, to unite these nations for the good. But as the president of one stumbling democracy joins hands with a prime minister bent on hobbling another, the project of global freedom seems one step closer to collapse.

Maya Jasanoff is a professor of history at Harvard