Chris Ogden – a consultant on the recent BBC documentary series examining the record of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – explores why the West appears to be silent on the authoritarianism unfolding in the world’s largest democracy
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A recent two-part documentary by the BBC – for which I was the series consultant – revealed a British government report that deemed India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to be “directly” responsible for the violence perpetrated during deadly sectarian riots in 2002. It also argued that such anti-Muslim proclivities have accelerated since he came to power in 2014.
In response, the Indian Government banned the documentary under emergency powers, declaring it “a propaganda piece, designed to push a particular discredited narrative… and a continuing colonial mindset”.
Despite this controversy, the personal popularity of Modi has remained undiminished. Indeed, this month, Modi was ranked as the most popular global leader, with a net approval rating of 60% for his decisive, assertive and frequently bombastic ruling style. It has also come via vast infrastructure investment into water, power and roads, which has pulled tens of millions of people out of poverty. As a result, India’s GDP per capita rose from $5,187 in 2014 to $7,242 in 2021.
There is a sense among the public that Modi’s own humble beginnings as a tea seller, and his meteoric rise, is creating a ‘New India’ – an inspiring narrative for a country that has a fifth of all of the world’s 10 to 24-year-olds.
A tech-savvy Modi is supported by big business and big tech, which is keen to access India’s huge markets. With the world’s third-largest GDP of $10.19 trillion, and an annual GDP growth rate that is now outstripping China, the country is attracting record levels of foreign direct investment.
This convergence is creating synergies between a resource-hungry India and the global economy. Converting this economic strength, India has the world’s third-highest military budget of $76.16 billion, much of it spent on weapons from France, Russia, the United States and Israel, which is augmenting New Delhi’s global resurrection as a great power.
Modi is also fulfilling key promises of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that are crucial to his Hindu nationalist voter base. These include advancing the building of a Hindu temple at the disputed religious site of Ayodhya and abrogating the special status of Kashmir in 2019 to bring it more firmly under the control of the Indian Government. As the self-proclaimed protector of Hindus from Muslim aggression, Modi’s National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 both deny Muslims the same rights as the Hindu majority. Such legislation, among many others, has been described as “Modi’s anti-Muslim jihad” that appears to be changing India from an inclusive democracy into a majoritarian theocracy.
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India’s Authoritarian Descent
Since 2014, India has been experiencing a deep-seated authoritarian tilt.
Modi has called journalists “presstitutes” and used defamation laws to silence reporters and news outlets that oppose his government’s policies. According to the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, India’s ranking fell from 133 to 150 out of 180 countries. On a wider scale, out of a total of 155 internal internet shutdowns in countries in 2020, 109 of these were carried out by India, including for the whole year in the Kashmir region.
There is also increasing evidence of ‘judicial barbarism’, with the law being used as “an instrument of oppression”. This has weakened civil liberties and civil society, with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 2019 reportedly being used to harass, intimidate and imprison political opponents and silence academic dissent. More than 7,000 people have also been charged with sedition under the wide-ranging Indian Penal Code of 1870. During the pandemic, nearly all public gatherings and protests were banned across India, and the majority of courts suspended.
As a result, the Economist’s 2021 Democracy Index called India a “flawed democracy”, while in 2021 the V-Dem Institute regarded the country as an “electoral autocracy”. A Modi victory in the 2024 national elections will only exacerbate this democratic retreat.
Such a victory seems all but certain in light of his 2019 landslide, when his party won 55.8% of all seats and 37.36% of the popular vote (versus 9.6% and 19.49% by the closest runner-up). Only India’s founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, won three consecutive elections (in 1952, 1957 and 1962): Modi would equal that record with a win in 2024.
A Perplexing Strategic Reality
This situation poses significant strategic difficulties for western leaders keen to counteract an authoritarian China that is threatening the democratic liberal international order.
Modi’s India also complicates simple western narratives of ‘democracies versus autocracies’, and is amplified by its refusal to criticise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That New Delhi is also being actively utilised by the West to balance out Beijing’s mounting power (analogously to how China was used in the 1970s to balance against the Soviet Union), only makes this new strategic reality even more perplexing.
For a Britain that is economically and diplomatically weakened by Brexit, there is little choice but to accept the strategic necessity of embracing India – especially if London ever wants to sign a much vaunted – and much delayed – free trade deal with New Delhi. In the context of Britain’s own democratic recession, it is also unlikely that increasing Indian autocracy will feature in such – or any other – negotiations. Such strategic circumstances will only confirm India’s great power rise and Britain’s relative decline as a global actor.
Chris Ogden is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His most recent book is ‘The Authoritarian Century: China’s Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order’. The BBC’s two-part documentary ‘India: The Modi Question’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer
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