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Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the United States on what the Americans call a “state visit”. This is the highest level of diplomacy that the US practises and is reserved for only a few close allies. The meet underlined how the US-India relationship is one of the most important in the world right now. Both countries are democracies as well as major economic powers. The clincher: they also have a common enemy in China.
Working together makes perfect sense.
In the normal course of things, the deepening of ties during the state visit would have made headlines by itself. Except, what actually took up most of the public conversation was something that would embarrass Indians: the country’s democratic decline and its treatment of minorities under Modi’s Hindu nationalist administration.
Hindutva dominates state visit
While Modi was in the US, former president Barack Obama warned that India may start “pulling apart” if the government does not protect the rights of its minorities. Obama held office for two terms and belongs to the Democratic party, same as incumbent president, Joseph Biden.
More: 75 US Democratic federal legislators urged Biden to raise human rights issues with Modi. In a rare move, several progressive lawmakers, including Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also decided to boycott Modi’s address to the US Congress.
While in the US, Modi decided to hold a rare press conference, reportedly under pressure from the Biden administration. So dominant was Hindutva as a theme during Modi’s visit that the Wall Street Journal, one of the world’s premier business newspapers, when given a chance to ask a question, chose to quiz Modi not on the economy but on the rights of India’s minorities.
The last bit of Modi’s US visit news cycle was occupied by BJP leaders scrambling to attack Obama for his warning against majoritarianism. Assam chief minister Himanta Sarma highlighted Obama’s Muslim middle name – a common Islamaphobic tactic used by far-right, White nationalists in the US – to deliver a veiled threat to India’s Muslims. “Sarma’s tweet “shows in many ways that what a mainstream BJP politician with sufficient stature and a constitutional office thinks of Muslims,” the Washington Post quoted an expert while reporting on the statement.
On Sunday, India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman then took up the attack, blaming Obama for “bombing 6 Muslim countries” and defending the Modi government’s record on secularism and its treatment of Muslims. “Out of the 13 awards that he has been given as Prime Minister of the country, six have been given by countries where Muslims are in the majority,” she said.
Simultaneously, Modi put out photos of him visiting a mosque in Egypt, a country he flew to after the US, in a move that could be read as further damage control after the attacks on his Hindutva ideology during the state visit.
The India-US relationship is a natural partnership. However, as was clear from the PR debacle of the Modi visit, the fact that India is currently ruled by a Hindu nationalist party that has little space for liberal concepts such as minority rights makes this relationship punch below its weight.
The US has long made human rights a key part of its foreign policy, at least on paper. This dynamic becomes even starker as America now itself battles far-right authoritarianism at home, with the rise of leaders such as Donald Trump. More cynically, a foreign leader already under a cloud for human rights violations gives the US an additional handle during the delicate power plays that characterise any realist understanding of global politics.
Whichever way one cuts it, it is clear from Modi’s state visit that the BJP’s Hindutva ideology has ended up weakening India’s hand on the global stage. Even strong proponents of the US-India alliance like American commentator Noah Smith have had to spend time addressing the fact that “American progressives are scared of allying with a country led by Narendra Modi”.
Putting out Hindutva’s fires
Indian foreign policy’s Hindutva handicap is not new and has repeatedly come up during Modi’s term in office. The starkest example might actually be how it has impacted relations with Bangladesh. The BJP alleged that millions of Bangladeshis were crossing over into India illegally as part of its politics of promising a National Register of Citizens. In 2021, as Modi visited Dhaka, the city erupted into violent protests which killed 17. It was a remarkable incident by any benchmark but especially given that India is Bangladesh’s closest ally and had helped liberate the country in 1971.
Later in 2022, India found itself in the eye of a global diplomatic storm after allegedly Islamaphobic remarks by a BJP spokesperson, Nupur Sharma. In response, Indian diplomats had to firefight in multiple Arab countries. The Indian Ambassador to Qatar even had to, ironically, characterise the ruling party’s spokesperson as a “fringe element”, arguing that the Modi government did not agree with Sharma.
India’s bureaucrats have also scrambled to control the damage caused by multiple academic studies that showed that India’s democratic credentials were on the decline. The Guardian reported that the Modi government was worried “they could affect international business in India if the country is seen as a politically risky place to invest”.
India in 2023 is the world’s most populous country and its fifth largest economy. A major place on the world stage is assured. However, what is clear is that Hindutva is a significant handicap for the country in allowing it to achieve its full potential.