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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters, New Delhi, India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters, New Delhi, India, May 23, 2019 (AP photo by Manish Swarup).

Will Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Agenda Tear India Apart?

Monday, Dec. 7, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overwhelming victory in India’s elections in May 2019 solidified his grip on power and ensured that he will set the country’s agenda for the foreseeable future. While the vote was technically a victory for his right-wing, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi turned it into a referendum on himself, becoming the face of nearly every BJP candidate’s local campaign. Modi played up his strongman persona on the campaign trail, particularly with regard to Pakistan, with which India had traded tit-for-tat airstrikes over Kashmir just months before the elections.

After the landslide victory, critics wondered whether Modi would double down on the Hindu nationalism and illiberalism that characterized his first term in office, or rein it in. In the year and a half since then, the answer has clearly been the former. In August 2019, Modi revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status and imposed a media and internet blackout on the state. Later that month, the state of Assam published the results of a citizenship census, the National Register of Citizens, that was ostensibly meant to formally register the citizenship status of local residents. But critics claimed it was a backhanded effort to strip Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh—and their descendants—of Indian citizenship. When the register was finally published, 1.9 million people—many but not all of them Muslims—were ultimately excluded.* In December 2019, in part to provide an avenue to citizenship for Hindus who had been excluded from the list, the government passed an immigration law that would confer fast-track citizenship on non-Muslim migrants from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, sparking weeks of domestic protests and some diplomatic fallout.

Meanwhile, Modi’s administration faces foreign policy challenges besides Pakistan, including regional competition for influence with China. The two countries recently engaged in a series of unarmed skirmishes along their disputed border in the Himalayas that culminated in a deadly brawl in June, marking the first casualties suffered there in 45 years. Though both sides seem to be seeking to deescalate, the situation remains volatile, in part because of the pressure Modi faces from his nationalist domestic base to stand up to India’s powerful neighbor. In addition, Modi faces the uncertainty created by the presidential transition in Washington. After initially facing accusations by President Donald Trump that India unfairly limits American manufacturers from access to its markets, he and Trump established what observers called a political “bromance” following several meetings and a high-profile visit by the U.S. president to India in February. Now, with President-elect Joe Biden making the defense of liberal democratic values a central pillar of his foreign policy agenda, some observers have wondered whether India’s illiberal slide under Modi might make it a less attractive partner in America’s strategic competition with China.

WPR has covered India in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Modi’s government continue to look the other way on Hindu nationalist violence? Will Modi’s illiberal streak cost him political capital with the Biden administration? How will the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on India’s economy affect Modi’s political prospects? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Since the Cold War, India has avoided becoming too closely aligned with any superpower, but its preference for multipolarity may not work in a global order dominated by competition between Washington and Beijing. China, after all, poses a direct threat to India in a way the U.S. and the Soviet Union did not.


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Domestic Politics

While Modi and his party have taken steps not to explicitly endorse a “Hindu first” agenda, it is clear where his sympathies lie. And there is evidence that the hard-line paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is driving recruitment for the BJP. The opposition has tried to draw attention to their concerns that Modi detracts from legitimate issues with his nationalist appeals, but Modi’s BJP was still able to secure an outright majority for the second time in a row in India, an almost unprecedented feat in modern Indian politics.

Global Relations

Under Modi, New Delhi has moved to become a more important player in the region, working to strengthen relations throughout Southeast and East Asia. But Modi’s Hindu nationalist leanings, particularly the recent citizenship law, has tarnished India’s image and strained ties with countries in its neighborhood and beyond. Meanwhile, relations between New Delhi and Beijing are characterized by an uneasy mix of cooperation and rivalry, underscored by periodic tensions over unresolved border disputes, as highlighted by the deadly clash in June. As a result, the U.S. is still a key partner for India, despite the lingering trade concerns on both sides.

Kashmir and the Conflict With Pakistan

The long-simmering tensions between India and Pakistan threatened to boil over in early 2019, when a Pakistani-based terrorist group killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in the disputed Kashmir region. Weeks later, Modi sent his response in the form of an air attack on a terrorist training camp, although questions persist about just how effective this strike actually was. Though the situation eventually calmed, Modi later revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status, once again raising tensions with Islamabad.


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WPR is increasing its focus on how U.S. foreign policy is likely to change under the Biden administration. While Biden would undoubtedly repudiate Trump’s approach, which was itself a radical break from U.S. foreign policy traditions, it’s unclear whether a restoration of the United States global role is even possible. What immediate challenges will the Biden administration confront? And how will he successfully pivot policy in key areas? This report is just a sampling of our coverage so far of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Download your FREE copy of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden to learn more today.

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As the Biden administration takes over, the world is experiencing a sort of whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. The Biden administration will repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.

The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Trumpism will remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around foreign policy for years to come.

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*Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 1.9 million Muslims had been excluded from Assam state’s National Register of Citizens. WPR regrets the error.

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