After a few years basking in the limelight for their ostensible investor-friendly dispensation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to be losing their glitz and glamour abroad as foreign coverage of the 2019 Indian general election takes shape. What is at stake for Europe as the Indian election unfolds? To this end, what does the treatment of the BJP in coverage abroad suggest?
“For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country—and a most curious country it was.”
–Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
“India’s most important election in decades is looming. Here’s what you need to know.”[i] So reads the title of a recent CNN article. Written as if it were a primer for novices to Indian politics, the news story’s sections are subtitled “Who can vote?” “Who’s running?” “How is the prime minister elected?” and so on.[ii]
Yet, curiously, it’s not clear from the article what precisely makes the 2019 Indian general election so consequential. Reference to the scale may suggest what makes Indian elections remarkable more generally: as “the world’s largest exercise in democracy,” the general election is “a mammoth undertaking that will take place over several weeks to ensure the voices of hundreds of millions of Indians across the country are heard.” [iii] But scale alone doesn’t suffice as a rejoinder to the tease of the title. One may be left wondering where the section titled “What makes this election so important?” has gone.
However, right in the first sentence rests perhaps an unwitting answer to this question: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [are] facing what looks like an increasingly close contest.” [iv]
‘Hindu nationalist.’ What function is the phrase meant to serve? It almost seems innocuous sitting so casually in the opening. Is it some diplomatic euphemism in an article that is otherwise an exercise in studied neutrality? Are international readers, to whom this article is presumably addressed, meant to understand ‘Hindu nationalism’ as part of the generic fabric of Indian politics? Or is it expected readers would further shake their heads with disapproval? What are readers in Europe and elsewhere meant to think about ‘Hindu nationalism’?
If one follows this phrase across foreign coverage of the Indian election, its trajectory suggests a trend. Save for the odd piece, it turns out the CNN article is an anomaly with regards to the treatment of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in American and European publications on the 2019 Indian election.[v] From the BBC to The German Marshall Fund, from Der Spiegel to Le Monde, ‘Hindu nationalist’ as a descriptor for the BJP is indeed almost everywhere, but its signification is far more politically explicit.
Stark reference to the BJP’s “Hindu-nationalist agenda,” for example, finds its way in the Economist’s take on the election. Here, however, the article concludes rather unequivocally with what it believes such an agenda means. “If Mr Modi wins a second term, his party may be even blunter in imposing its Hindu-nationalist vision of a more muscular, less tolerant India.”[vi] Over at the Guardian, “Modi is the most virulent Hindu nationalist ever to occupy the prime ministership.”[vii] Finally, Milan Vaishnav at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states the matter definitively: “The BJP is a Hindu nationalist political party in India that believes that Hinduism and Indian national identity are more or less synonymous…The BJP makes no bones about its belief that it principally serves the interests of Hindus.”[viii]
In patching the remarks of American and European publications together, a kind of composite vision about India—albeit a haphazard and provisional one—emerges. In the case of Indian election coverage, such a vision suggests that for many foreign observers, Narendra Modi “fits into the mould” of the “recent wave of nationalistic populists” across the world, with the BJP under Modi described as having an “authoritarian streak.” Indeed, in Le Monde Diplomatique, one finds that “being anti-national”, “to offend the feelings of the nation”, to perform acts of “sedition” are all phrases used in public debate and in the face of all those who dare to criticize the government of Mr. Modi or his supporters”.[ix]
Criticism, in fact, doesn’t just stop at charges of authoritarianism and the like; it continues onwards to Modi’s economic policies. At Der Spiegel, for example, a piece on Modi is titled “Betrogen,” or, “Cheated.” An excerpt reads:
“Every month about one million Indians enter the labour market. But many do not find jobs. The demographic dividend, India’s historic opportunity, threatens to become a disaster. And the man who is to blame is the one who once fuelled their hopes: Narendra Modi, the prime minister”.[x]
While “the prime minister insists India’s economy has grown faster under his leadership than ever before,” the Financial Times writes “many economists have questioned the credibility of official data, amid precepted of unprecedented political interference” and that “New Delhi has also suppressed a major report which apparently indicated rising joblessness among youth.”[xi]
Among what is striking about this coverage is, as the New Yorker suggests, “[f]or the international community, the dominant narrative of India under Modi has been a story of economic success, not an account of religious violence and repression.”[xii] Given the criticism ahead of the election, it might be hard to imagine this is the figure whom former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 considered as believing that “the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect.”[xiii]
One may be reminded of an earlier time, when Modi, then Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, was informally boycotted by several European Union (EU) governments and the United States for allegations over his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which over a thousand Indians—mostly Muslim—were killed. In this light, the nod to diversity of faiths in Obama’s remark may well have been the diplomatic euphemism which no longer seems adequate for ‘Hindu nationalism,’ the increasingly standard and moreover normative description for the BJP.
It was only in 2013 that “[a] quiet lunch between European Union ambassadors and Indian prime ministerial contender Narendra Modi  shattered what remained of a decade-old informal boycott of the Hindu nationalist political leader.”[xiv] Modi’s “seemingly unstoppable march towards becoming the [BJP] candidate for prime minister in [the 2014 Indian general] elections” may have led then EU Ambassador João Cravinho to remark that Modi was a “major political figure,” someone evidently to engage rather than resist.[xv] In an interview following Modi’s ascent to the prime ministership, Cravinho was asked how he would “rate him as a leader of India.” His answer ended with the following:
“No Prime Minister would like to have communal strife on his record, and I am certain that [Modi] would not allow any communal tensions in India. His priority is to boost the economy and he has his eyes set on that.”[xvi]
On both accounts (communalism and the economy) the thrust of the foreign coverage ahead of the Indian election indicates otherwise. However, it has not stopped EU documents about India from making claims this same coverage appears to scrutinize, namely that “the EU and India share the same values of democracy, human rights, [and] fundamental freedoms […].”[xvii] Nevertheless, it could be precise because both the EU and India profess these values as girding their partnership that much of today’s coverage of Modi and the BJP from outside India draws its motivation.
Elections seem to be opportune times to reflect on what may be at stake for outside observers in the political developments of the country at hand. Though it has been put forth that Indian foreign policy continuity remains largely strong independent of the party in power, the interest in the intense evaluation of the BJP by outside observers suggests the contrary.[xviii] The particular party in power, their domestic policies and their consequences appears to bear significant value for governments elsewhere if only for the ripple effects outside India these developments are believed to create.
The 2019 Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, for example, contained this rather pithy and revealing paragraph titled “Indian Elections and Ethnic Tensions”:
Parliamentary elections in India increase the possibility of communal violence if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stresses Hindu nationalist themes. BJP policies during Modi’s first term have deepened communal tensions in some BJP-governed states, and Hindu nationalist state leaders might view a Hindu-nationalist campaign as a signal to incite low-level violence to animate their supporters. Increasing communal clashes could alienate Indian Muslims and allow Islamist terrorist groups in India to expand their influence.[xix]
As its title would suggest, the Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community is not a work of journalistic reporting let alone an opinion piece. It is a high-level document released at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that reflects the “collective insights of the Intelligence Community” with regards to an “assessment of threats to US national security.”[xx] The stakes of the contents therein could not be clearer where a question like “What makes the 2019 Indian general election so important?” is concerned. Therefore, it is remarkable to see in this text a continuity, that too hardly fragile, between “BJP policies” “communal violence” and that phrase again “Hindu nationalist.”[xxi]
But if the BJP simply and clearly is a Hindu nationalist party, then what does it mean to weigh the “possibility of communal violence” if the BJP “stresses Hindu nationalist themes” or if it runs a “Hindu-nationalist campaign”? Axiomatically, would not a Hindu nationalist party run precisely a Hindu nationalist campaign?
If Hindu nationalism is inseparably intertwined with communal violence, is it just that a degree may be acceptable albeit regrettable for the European or American partner? Is Modi a step too far but Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s first and only other prime minister from the BJP, permissible?
If moderation is what is at stake, one can consider Kanchan Chandra’s article in Foreign Affairs: “Vajpayee is often held up as an exemplar of moderate Hindu nationalism, especially in contrast to the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who espouses a more strident ideology.”[xxii] But tellingly, Chandra concludes: “Only the emergence of even more extreme versions of Hindu nationalism allowed Vajpayee’s position to come across as middle-of-the-road.”[xxiii] The value of so-called ideological moderation may therefore do little to assuage the concerns foreign onlookers are raising around the 2019 election. Moderation in the Hindu nationalist cause itself appears to have the function – unintentional or otherwise – of paving the way for greater ideological strides. Not incidentally, Chandra’s article is titled “The Triumph of Hindu Majoritarianism.” And it is subtitled “A Requiem for an Old Idea of India,” that idea being “an imagined secular, pluralist, polity that belonged to all Indians and not to any one group.”[xxiv]
Is the BJP so thoroughly tainted then? Optimistically, the starry-eyed outside observer of the current Indian election could wonder whether there is a version of Hindu nationalism, or a version of the BJP, in which the possibility of communal violence could be stamped out, or at best, represent some kind of aberration which could eventually be tempered. What kind of steadfast courage might it take to sustain such a view, to render moot all depictions of Hindu nationalism and the BJP, whose portrayal in diverse American and European publications (let alone by Indian critics) does not hold out for such a possibility?
In any case, in the meanwhile one is confronted with choices. For India as seen through Europe’s looking-glass appears to be in crisis. Those in Europe would do therefore well to gauge the extent of their investment in Indian pluralism and secularism. At stake are not just the shared values of democracy and human rights claimed to gird the EU-India partnership but also an environment in India conducive for the economic cooperation sought in an EU-India trade deal (and for that matter, any post-Brexit UK-India trade deal). An environment that governance of the Hindu nationalist variety may not be competent to foster and sustain.
Nowadays, it is not only the domestic electorate but also those abroad who will shape the idea of a country. After all, through the looking-glass, Europe may see its own reflection in India—that of the attempt to forge an inclusive community among diverse groups, an attempt being thwarted and whose fate is up for grabs.
[i] Manveena Suri, Swati Gupta, “https://edition.cnn.com/2019/02/15/asia/india-election-what-to-know-intl/index.html,” CNN International, March 13, 2019.
[v] A prominent exception to this trend would be the paragraph on India in the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) piece “10 Elections to Watch in 2019” which makes no reference at all to Hindu nationalism. In discussing the European Parliament elections, it does, however, claim “rising illiberalism” as among the problems believed by some to be threatening the collapse of the European Union. Apparently, for the CFR, there is no rising illiberalism in India worthy of the name. James M. Lindsay, “Ten Elections to Watch in 2019,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 12, 2018.
[vii] Michael Safi, “India: world’s biggest election has suddenly become competitive,” The Guardian, December 31, 2018.
[viii] Milan Vaishnav, What is the Secret to the Success of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 11, 2018. For a sustained treatment by Vaishnav on the stakes of the 2019 Indian election, see Milan Vaishnav, “Religious Nationalism and India’s Future,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 4, 2019.
The original reads: “« Être antinational », « heurter les sentiments de la nation », faire acte de « sédition » sont autant d’expressions lancées dans le débat public et à la figure de toutes celles et ceux qui osent critiquer le gouvernement de M. Modi ou ses soutiens.”
[x] Laura Höflinger, “Betrogen,” Der Spiegel, March 8, 2019. The original reads: “Jeden Monat strömen etwa eine Million Inder auf den Arbeitsmarkt. Doch viele finden keine Jobs. Die demografische Dividende, Indiens historische Chance, droht zum Desaster zu werden. Und der Mann, der daran Mitschuld hat, ist genau jener, der ihre Hoffnungen einst befeuerte: Narendra Modi, der Premierminister.”
[xi] Amy Kazmin, “Indian Election: The Mixed Verdict on Narendra Modi,” The Financial Times, April 8, 2019.
[xvi] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Narendra Modi has his eyes set on boosting business: Joao Cravinho, EU Ambassador,” The Economic Times, June 3, 2014.
[xvii] European External Action Service, An EU Strategy on India, 20 November 2018. The INDIA-EU joint Statement following the 14th India-EU Summit in 2017 also references both partners’ “commitment to further deepen and strengthen the India-EU Strategic Partnership based on shared principles and values of democracy, freedom, rule of law and respect for human rights and territorial integrity of States.” See European Council, INDIA-EU Joint Statement, 6 October 2019.
[xviii] Krzysztof Iwanek, “Reviewing India’s Foreign Policy Toward Europe Under Narendra Modi,” The Diplomat, April 3, 2019.
[xix] Daniel R. Coats, Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 29, 2019.