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Joe Biden and Walter Russell Mead Deserve an “F” on India
They are fawning over Prime Minister Modi because they have failed to understand him
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Office of the Prime Minister of India.
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the map of the world was awash with authoritarian governments. Free and fair elections were a luxury that only wealthy countries in Western Europe, North America, and a few isolated examples in the east, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan could afford, it seemed. Among the most notable exceptions was India. Since its independence from the British in 1947, India held elections regularly, largely respected its constitutional commitment to religious pluralism, toleration and minority rights (except for a brief 19-month interlude between 1975 to 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution).
Therefore, many Indians rightly felt slighted that the world didn’t give their country the respect it deserved for staying steadfast to its constitution and the rule of law. Incredibly, now the opposite is happening. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are assaulting India’s bedrock liberal democratic commitments, not only the Biden administration but also academics such as Yale University’s Walter Russell Mead, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, are singing the praises of Indian democracy.
President Joe Biden is acting out of the wrongheaded notion that wooing Modi will help advance America’s geopolitical interests in the region. Mead, on the other hand, has failed to do elementary homework and has fallen for Modi agitprop.
Biden and the West: Bad Time to Woo
India is a far wealthier country now than at the time of its independence. Yet it has experienced a steep decline in democratic norms on literally every index of democratic performance. The 2023 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked India 161 out of 180 countries in its commitment to a free press—down 11 points from the year before. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free” a few years ago because the government was forcing social media sites to remove critical content and BJP-led states were banning Muslim men from marrying Hindu women, among many, many other illiberal moves. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ global impunity index has dropped India’s ranking from 14th in 2018 to 11th in 2022 due to its deteriorating record in prosecuting the murderers of journalists. The Economist Intelligence (EIU) democracy index for 2022 put India in the “flawed democracy” camp. India’s ranking on University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem rankings slipped from 100 last year to 108 in 2023. V-Dem now calls India an “electoral autocracy.” One can quibble with the methodology of some of these reports as India’s foreign minister has but, put together, the trend is clear: India’s democracy is in trouble.
None of this seems to faze western governments, which continue to call India “the world’s largest democracy,” an almost Orwellian characterization given how removed it is from reality. The French president Emmanuel Macron has invited Modi as his guest at the Bastille Day celebrations this year. But it is the Biden administration that took things to a whole new level at its March “Summit for Democracy”. As if irony had died, at a panel titled “Democracy Delivering Economic Growth and Shared Prosperity,” Modi shared the stage with his fellow far-right leaders Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Giorgia Meloni of Italy. He sermonized about how India was “the mother” of democracy. “Democracy is not just a structure; it is also a spirit,” he proclaimed. His own guiding philosophy, he beamed, is “‘Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas,’ meaning ‘striving together for inclusive growth.’” But, according to the World Bank, India’s Gini Coefficient, income inequality has worsened from 34.7 in 2015, the year after Modi came to power, to 35.7 in 2019, the last year for which the World Bank has data.
Despite all this, Gina Raimondo, the US commerce secretary, seemed to fall completely for Modi’s self-aggrandizing propaganda. “He is unbelievable, a visionary and his level of commitment to the people of India is just indescribable and deep and passionate and real and authentic,” she gushed a month after the summit.
No doubt the administration is courting India because Western powers see it as a check to China’s rising belligerence. After all, India is now part of the group of Indo-Pacific countries called the Quad that also includes America, Japan, and Australia and was formed specifically to counter China. But courting India shouldn’t mean handing it a clean chit for Modi’s manifest violations of human rights and civil liberties.
Moreover, such shameless fawning isn’t working anyway.
Even though India has had significant military incidents with China along its border, it is showing no signs of joining any international effort to isolate China over its treatment of the Uyghurs (maybe because it doesn’t want to raise questions about its own treatment of Muslims) or the potential conflict in Taiwan. It has banned several Chinese apps from its cybersphere, but trade with China continues to grow.
And when it comes to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Modi talks from both sides of his mouth. He recently told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he’d do “everything” to end the war. Yet India has taken an independent line, refusing to issue a forthright condemnation of Russia much less join in sanctioning Putin. Furthermore, reports suggest India refines Russian crude to sell it in international markets, testing the strength of sanctions.
A Confused Commentator
The Biden administration’s pious statements, while lamentable, are at least comprehensible in that they are in the service of the misguided idea that there is a need to boost America’s ties with India. But what excuse does someone like Mead have, a commentator and an academic whose fealty should be to objective truth telling?
In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which was more abject, craven, and sycophantic than even Raimondo’s valentine to Modi, Mead described the BJP as “the most important political party in the world” from the standpoint of American national interests and also the “least understood.” Assuming that American interests include respect for human rights, press freedom, judicial independence, protection of minorities, and equal rights for all, then Mead demonstrated poor understanding of both the BJP and US national interests. And if the BJP is the “least understood” party, Mead’s own poor understanding makes him ill equipped to fix the problem.
He notes that Modi has been accused of mistreating journalists and failing to stop mob violence against minorities, which he characterizes as “occasional.” But these things are features, not bugs of Modi’s India.
Indifference Over BJP’s Anti-Muslim Campaign
Starting with the second item first, Mead betrays no hint that he is aware that as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi presided over one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim bloodletting since India’s independence. Hindu militants—some tied to the BJP—massacred thousands of Muslims in a few days. Muslim women were beaten, gang raped and murdered. One survivor is Bilkis Bano, a pregnant woman whose toddler’s head was bashed in front of her before she was raped by 11 neighbors and left for dead. After 17 long years, her tormentors were finally convicted—only to be released last year by the Gujarat government, which Modi or his party have ruled uninterrupted for just over a quarter century, due to “good behavior” in prison. Worse, Gujarat did so after obtaining a green light from Amit Shah, Modi’s Home Minister and right-hand man. When the rapists got out, BJP leaders and activists greeted them with garlands. A BBC documentary earlier this year examining Modi’s role in the Gujarat pogrom was effectively banned from the country. (To their credit, some Australian politicians and human rights activists have arranged to screen that documentary in the Australian parliament during Modi’s visit.)
During Modi’s first term from 2015 to 2018, Human Rights Watch found that Hindu “cow protection” vigilantes lynched 44 people—36 of whom were Muslim.
The BJP is targeting Muslims not just with violence but also abusive laws. Modi’s notorious Citizenship Amendment Act, which has generated massive protests around the country, could potentially strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship unless they meet complicated conditions to prove they are Indians. Mosques that have allegedly breached municipal laws are being razed, and Muslims are increasingly facing restrictions over praying in public. Muslim girls and women are not allowed to wear the headscarf in academic institutions in one state. Muslim tenants are increasingly finding it hard to get rental property and many Muslims find their job applications go unanswered.
BJP activists take every opportunity to vilify Muslims. When the pandemic took off in India, they blamed Tablighi Muslims, who had gathered for a religious event, as super spreaders while initially ignoring large electoral rallies that Modi was addressing; the rallies were later canceled. Modi has repeatedly dog-whistled that you can tell who is violent by how they dress—a not-so-subtle effort to demonize observant Muslims. It is not surprising then that the BJP no longer has a single Muslim member of parliament even though nearly 14% of India’s population is Muslim, not even a token one as had been the case in the previous BJP government.
But except for gesturing against BJP’s efforts to pass anti-conversion laws, Mead maintains a stoic silence about the BJP’s concerted and in-your-face, anti-Muslim crusade. Not even the BJP’s efforts to make inter-faith marriages exceedingly hard to solve the entirely imaginary problem of “love jihad”—Muslim men seducing Hindu girls into marrying them—gets a mention.
Silence Over Silencing the Press
What about Mead’s short shrift to mistreatment of journalists in India under Modi? Here are just some examples that barely scratch the surface of what’s happening that a responsible commentator would have taken into account:
· A Muslim reporter who traveled to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to investigate the rape and murder of a Dalit (untouchable) child was arrested on terrorism charges and released on bail after many months of efforts.
· Journalists and human rights activists investigating what central rule has wrought in Kashmir find themselves in a pattern of being arrested, bailed, and rearrested.
· Sixteen human rights activists, academics, and social workers have been in jail without any charges since 2018.
· An 84-year-old Jesuit priest suffering from Parkinson’s who fought for the rights of tribal people died in detention without ever being charged.
Either Mead did not know this or chose to ignore it. Either way, it’s a dereliction of a commentator’s responsibility.
Hinduism with German Characteristics
Mead talks positively about the BJP’s attempt at “national renewal” based on a distinctively Hindu path, without notifying his readers what that means. The BJP’s idea of nationhood is nothing like the gentle and tolerant faith that Mahatma Gandhi articulated—and more akin to the German nationalism of the 1930s. It is a militant ideology of trident-waving fundamentalists who cheer when religious leaders call for genocide of Muslims. Martha Nussbaum accurately described the transformation of the faith from the inclusive and tolerant version to a more militant, masculine and assertive one paralleling German and Italian nationalism in Clash of Fundamentalisms as far back as 2007, ample time for Mead to familiarize himself with the work.
Weirdly enough, Mead compares the BJP with the Muslim Brotherhood in its rejection of liberalism and embrace of modernity; the Chinese Communist Party in its desire to make the country a global superpower; and Israel’s Likud for its “pro-market” stance with populist rhetoric. He is correct in comparing the BJP with parties that have little commitment to democracy (although he is totally ambiguous about whether he considers that good or bad), but it is a stretch to call the BJP pro-market. Modi understands marketing, not markets. The business model he supports is closer to East Asian authoritarian capitalism of crony businessmen—and not the rules-based market of Western capitalism, as I argued in a recent piece.
Mead notes that his piece was based on “intensive series of meetings with senior BJP and RSS leaders (as well as some of their critics).” But RSS is not some benign outfit. It is the mother organization of Hindu nationalism and has been banned from the country three times in the past for fomenting anti-Muslim hate and violence, which Mead does not even mention. Moreover, if Mead talked to Modi’s critics as he claimed, there isn’t much indication that they made any impression on him. But the BJP and RSS clearly did or he wouldn’t have so credulously regurgitated their talking points. For example, he touts the BJP’s success in India’s “Christian states” in the northeast and among Shia Muslims in Uttar Pradesh to undercut the narrative that the BJP is hostile to religious minorities.
Here’s the full story on both those claims. The BJP won in the northeast by consolidating the Hindu vote, in part by whipping anger at the churches for “forcibly converting” people and dividing the opposition. One consequence is escalating violence, as seen most recently in Manipur.
Regurgitating Government Propaganda
As for the BJP’s success with Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, 19% of the state’s population is Muslim—but Shias are barely 3-4%. So winning them would hardly be a strong indication of the party’s popularity with Muslims. But the BJP has done well with Shias since the 1990s when the previous Vajpayee reached out to them. But since Modi installed Yogi Adityanath, a militant Hindu monk as chief minister of UP, Shia Muslims have become more alienated from the party because Yogi has targeted their rituals and observances.
But it isn’t just Muslims and the press that the Modi government is assaulting. Had Mead spent some time during his trip simply reading newspapers instead of merely talking to his government handlers, he might have learned about all the other institutions of liberal democracy that are being trashed in India, even as we speak.
BJP’s supporters have been vociferously smearing and trolling Chief Justice Dhananjaya Chandrachud as a “liberal”—a dirty word in Modi’s India—without any rebuke from Modi or his law minister (who has since been removed for reasons unrelated to the attacks on the chief justice). Respecting the opposition is another hallmark of democracy. But after opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s successful unity walk across the country, the BJP took the cheap way of neutralizing his threat. He was convicted on utterly ridiculous defamation charges about vilifying the last name “Modi” and then swiftly removed from parliament. Think about that: A duly elected leader ejected not for public corruption or some heinous crime but for something this flimsy.
Mead lectures that “Americans and Westerners need to engage more deeply with the BJP”— oblivious, yet again, to the nauseating degree that this is already happening. But engagement ought to be based on an accurate understanding of what India’s ruling party is doing to the country. Unfortunately, Mead’s shallow and sanitized account does not offer that.