Western elites had been souring on Modi. But after this month’s clashes with China, they’re giving him a second look.

After his reelection last May, there has been little good news for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aside from a high-profile visit by his American counterpart Donald Trump. 

Global investors soured on Modi as the Indian economic engine began to sputter. The Western press pilloried him for his annexation of the disputed region of Kashmir last August and the pogroms organised by his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi during the Trump visit. 

In the US Congress, India faced unprecedented criticism for its human rights record, particularly from the Democrats.

Modi’s reputation had become so toxic that commentators like the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman — who, in 2014, found Modi’s rise to be “thrilling” and providing the “jolt” India needed — bailed on him. 

Last November, Rachman wrote: “The danger is that the west is embracing a comforting illusion — that democratic India will act as an ideological bulwark against authoritarian China. The reality is that India’s slide into illiberalism may actually be strengthening the global trend towards authoritarianism.”

But now, as talk of a US-China Cold War heats up, American and other Western elites are giving Modi a second look.

The prevailing view among Western observers of Asia is that this month’s deadly clashes between Chinese and Indian forces along the Line of Actual Control were part of a series of acts of Chinese aggression in recent months, tying them to Beijing’s further erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy after the imposition of a national security law and attacks on Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea. 

I’ve argued elsewhere that this view is at the very least incomplete: tacit US support for India’s revisionist and expansionist policies in China’s western periphery also likely triggered Beijing’s incursion into territory claimed by New Delhi.

Alas, such is the weight of the China challenge that it squashes all other potential explanations for complex geopolitics. 

It also seems as if the spread of the coronavirus has also taken a psychological effect on the West. With good reason, there is an unprecedented feeling of vulnerability — a growing belief, fueled in part by the abject failure of the US and British governments in containing the virus, that the global order dominated by the West is now in jeopardy. 

As a result, the posture of US and other Western policymaking elites toward China has hardened, talk of a new Cold War has accelerated, and the search for partners to manage and contain the rise of China has renewed. 

Western elites have once again set their eyes on India. Predictably, realpolitik has trumped human rights.

We see this dynamic to some extent in Rachman’s FT column. This month, he assessed that India would likely align itself with the West against China. And while he did not explicitly advocate such an alignment, there is no mention of Modi’s own brand of authoritarian majoritarianism and the threat India’s aggressive revisionism poses to regional states.

The Western reflex to fall back on India as a counterweight to China is displayed more clearly by other voices, including Michele Flournoy, who would be a leading candidate for secretary of defense should Joe Biden win in November. 

Flournoy — also writing in the FT — argued that the clashes along the Line of Actual Control should serve as a “clarion call” for India and other democracies, recommending that they band together to counter China in the so-called “Indo-Pacific” region. 

Modi is leading India on a path toward becoming an authoritarian, Hindu-majoritarian state. But he will once again get a pass from Western policymaking elites given the severity of the China challenge and their inability to conceive ways to check China in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region without centering India. 

Western elites will continue — out of reflex, guilt, or a mix of both — to frame their partnership with New Delhi as one motivated in part by shared “democratic” values, despite the steady erosion of Indian democracy under Modi.  

Smoke and mirrors

Domestically, the response toward Modi may be more complicated. 

This month, Modi effectively endorsed China’s territorial claims when he denied that Chinese forces entered and seized Indian territory. This communications blunder, combined with the meek response to the killing of at least 20 Indian soldiers by Chinese forces, triggered outrage from India’s strategic community, including retired army officers, who up to this point had been supportive of Modi out of a belief that he could make their country a great power.

In contrast, Modi’s support from the general public is more secure. While China has been able to create facts on the ground using its military might, the BJP’s robust fake news machine will enable India to create “facts” in an imaginary world curated for the Indian public through hyper-nationalist news channels and WhatsApp. 

During the crisis with Pakistan last spring, the Indian government falsely claimed that it killed hundreds of terrorists in airstrikes on a seminary in the Pakistani city of Balakot. It merely downed some trees. 

After the Pakistan Air Force shot down at least one Indian fighter jet, the BJP’s fake news machine went on overdrive, claiming that the Indian Air Force shot down a Pakistani F16, killing a fictitious pilot named “Shahzaz-ud-din.” 

These myths were peddled by national security correspondents with leading Indian news channels, even after being debunked by outlets such as Foreign Policy, and persist to this day as “truths” in the self-contained Indian information ecosystem.

Indian journalists have been applying the same fake news strategies in the wake of the clash with China. Beijing has offered little information on casualties among its forces in these clashes. 

Taking advantage of this, New Delhi has claimed that it offered a disproportionate response, killing a greater number of Chinese soldiers. Anchors on India’s Times Now news channel even read out the names of these fake Chinese soldiers. 

Barkha Dutt, a prominent Indian journalist who toes the official line on national security issues, took a slightly more respectable route, citing in her Washington Post column more modest figures by unnamed “official Indian sources” that twelve Chinese soldiers were killed.

Employing Bollywoodesque tactics, the Indian fake news machine is painting the drubbing they received at the Line of Actual Control as a victory. Indians have proven to be susceptible to ludicrous plotlines at the box office and the “idiot box.”

But the creativity of India’s fake news machine has its limits. It can invent dead Chinese and Pakistani soldiers, but it cannot ease the real economic hardship for the average Indian by sheer imagination. 

Modi’s greatest vulnerability remains the Indian economy, which will contract by 4.5 percent this year, according to the latest estimates by the International Monetary Fund

The Modi government has handled the pandemic terribly. A lockdown announced abruptly sent migrant workers fleeing, with some walking home hundreds of miles away. Indian laborers and small business owners had already been hit hard by Modi’s failed economic policies, including demonetisation and the goods and services tax. Their suffering has grown.

Modi’s image at home may take a hit. But he has considerable breathing space. The BJP has a strong parliamentary majority. General elections are around four years away. And at the national level, there is no real competitor to the BJP. The Indian National Congress remains a party in decline. Its senior leadership is AWOL.

Renewed Western interest in India as a strategic partner will do little to change India’s course. Their belief in India’s indispensability could provide New Delhi with cover to accelerate its march toward becoming an authoritarian, Hindu-majoritarian state — ironically, making it resemble China (politically) more than any Western democracy. 

Indeed, deploying India as an instrument to balance China is a double-edged sword. Greater military and strategic support for India by the West will also accelerate the drift of regional states, including Pakistan and Nepal, toward China out of fear of Indian domination. 

China — as well as emerging Southeast Asian economies — will continue to outpace India in economic growth. Slow, unequal growth will mean that poverty will remain entrenched in Indian society, leading to further discontent and disorder. And the Indian state will continue to struggle to muster the resources to finance the modernisation of its defense forces to counter China.

The West will experience India fatigue once again in the years ahead. But Modi will muddle through because the West cannot imagine better ways to compete with China and the Indian electorate continues to believe in the myth of “the man with the 56-inch chest.”

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