Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Agenda Is Corroding India’s Democracy

Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Agenda Is Corroding India’s Democracy
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters, New Delhi, India, May 23, 2019 (AP photo by Manish Swarup).

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 nearly four years 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 critics claimed was a backhanded effort to strip Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh—and their descendants—of Indian citizenship. And in December 2019, 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.

Meanwhile, Modi’s administration faces foreign policy challenges besides Pakistan, including regional competition for influence with China. Nearly three years ago, the two countries engaged in a series of unarmed skirmishes along their disputed border in the Himalayas that culminated in a deadly brawl in June 2020, marking the first casualties suffered there in 45 years. Though they subsequently reached a resolution to the standoff, 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.

Upon taking office in January 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden made a priority of engaging early with New Delhi as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, which observers see as an effort to counter China’s influence. But with Biden making the defense of liberal democratic values a central pillar of his foreign policy agenda, some observers wondered whether India’s illiberal slide under Modi might make it a less attractive partner in America’s strategic competition with China. Those fears were heightened by India’s refusal to vocally condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine or rally behind the U.S. position on the war at the United Nations. But for now, geopolitical considerations seem to have trumped values in determining Washington’s priorities for the relationship.

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 impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine War 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. Modi’s BJP was able to secure an outright majority for the second time in a row in India, an almost unprecedented feat in modern Indian politics. But despite a weakened opposition, Modi’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as other recent missteps have put a dent in his popularity.

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 inside Pakistan’s borders, although questions persist about just how effective that strike actually was. Though the situation eventually calmed, Modi later revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status, once again raising tensions with Islamabad. The two sides subsequently agreed to recommit to a cease-fire on the Line of Control that separates them in Kashmir, but much more will be required to ease the tensions that make the region such a flashpoint.

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 2019 citizenship law, have 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 2020. As a result, the U.S. is still a key partner for India, despite lingering trade concerns on both sides and tensions over New Delhi’s refusal to take a side in Washington’s standoff with Moscow.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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