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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?

Wednesday, Sept. 23, 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 months since then, the answer has become clearly the former. In August, 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, 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 possibility of a trade war with the United States, with U.S. President Donald Trump claiming that India is unfairly limiting American manufacturers from access to its markets. Tensions seem to have cooled following several meetings between Modi and Trump, as well as a high-profile visit by the U.S. president to India in February. But the two sides have not arrived at a resolution, and New Delhi remains sensitive to the public perception that Washington is bullying it into submission.

WPR has covered India in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Modi’s personal camaraderie with Trump be enough to hold off a trade war with the United States? Will Modi’s government continue to look the other way on Hindu nationalist violence? 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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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.


[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for just $12 for 12 weeks and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]


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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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