PM Modi with Australian, US and Japanese leaders in 2022 - YashSD/ - Photo: 2024

It’s China, Stupid! Why the West Is Courting India

By Herbert Wulf*

This article was issued by the Toda Peace Institute and is being republished with their permission.

BONN, Germany | 24 April 2024 (IDN) — India votes. In the world’s largest democracy, with almost a billion voters, parliamentary elections are being held from April 19 to June 1. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to be granted a third five-year term, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can count on an overwhelming majority. The West—the US, the EU, Germany, Japan, Australia and many other countries—are courting the Indian government and vying for India’s partnership, for the closest possible political and economic relations.

In the current global environment, India is well-positioned to be a preferred partner for the West, as shared democratic values could create a sense of like-mindedness. But politically, India is at a crossroads.

India’s secular society and multicultural democracy are no longer as stable as the constitution stipulates. Indian democracy has suffered significantly during the Modi era, and Modi and his BJP have systematically undermined it. Already in 2020, the Guardian wrote that India’s “institutions—courts, much of its media, its investigative agencies, its election commission— have been pressured to fall in line with Modi’s policies.” As in other so-called “illiberal” democracies, the Indian government adapts the text of its history books to its own ideas. Whether at universities or schools, in print or online media, those who disagree with the government’s credo are pushed to the margins.

A Hindu renaissance

Prime Minister Modi pursues a policy of Hindutva, a Hindu renaissance, the creation of a homogeneous Hindu society that discriminates against non-Hindus. The concept of Hindutva is a nationalist ideology that was written in 1923 and is now aggressively propagated by the BJP. According to this concept of identity politics, India is supposed to be a Hindu nation. In the words of Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: In terms of domestic and foreign policy, India wants to reflect on its own civilisational strength. Hence the name of India today as “Bharat”, the Sanskrit word for India. This ideology is the opposite of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s idealistic version of a liberal, secular and multicultural India.

Hindutva has practical consequences. In 2019, for example, parliament passed a new citizenship law, the Citizenship Amendment Act. This law is a fast track for refugees who came from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan until 2014 to be granted asylum and citizenship in India. The law applies to adherents of all religious communities in Asia, except Islam.

As a result, Muslims are automatically and openly deprived of their citizenship. Arundhati Roy, probably India’s best-known contemporary writer, refers to this law as a “version of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935”. These laws were introduced in Germany by the Nazi’s and required the submission of “ancestry papers.”

While critics fear the death of democracy in India, Modi claimed at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos that India’s democracy is a “force of stability” in an uncertain world. The World Press Freedom Index 2023 ranks India at the bottom of the list at rank 161, along with countries like Russia and Turkey. According to Reporters Without Borders, the situation in India’s press has changed from “problematic” to “very bad”. Freedom House, which measures trends in democracy and authoritarianism in its annual survey, lists India in the group of countries with the largest 10-year decline in freedom. Therefore, India has been downgraded from “free” to the “partially free” category.

The opposition is systematically suppressed

The opposition is systematically suppressed, especially in predominantly Muslim Kashmir, where the state government has been under Delhi’s control for five years. The military brutally cracked down on demonstrators because, in Delhi’s view, they are terrorists. The government in New Delhi censored the press and shut down internet and telephone connections for weeks. Thousands of opposition politicians and journalists ended up in prison in 2019, many of them to this day.

The opposition Congress Party, which governed for decades and was run like a family business by Nehru’s dynasty, is marginalized, not least because it clung to power in a complacent and highly corrupt manner. It is questionable whether today’s opposition alliance of more than 20 parties led by Congress has a chance in the current election. Many Indians see the alternative in Modi, who presents himself as a man of action, who made it from a poor tea seller to prime minister.

In the ten years of the Modi government, the Indian economy has grown rapidly, and India’s government is self-consciously emphasizing its important role in world politics. India is now the world’s fifth-largest economy and boasts high growth rates of up to seven percent per year. That is why India is of particular interest to the West as a partner. Modi always knows how to reassure his Western partners: “There is absolutely no discrimination in India.” When he visited the United States a year ago, he responded to critical questions with self-confidence: “Democracy is our spirit. Democracy runs in our veins. We live democracy.”

When former US president Barack Obama was asked during Modi’s visit to Washington why the US was not more critical of the policies of autocrats like Modi, he said, “It’s complicated,” mentioning financial, geopolitical and security interests that the US president had to take into account. In other words, democratic values or not: It’s China, stupid! India seems indispensable as a counterweight to China in Asia.

Not ready to simply be co-opted by the West against Russia or China

But India is not ready to simply be co-opted by the West against Russia or China. After the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the US and the EU were astonished to discover that India did not participate in the sanctions against Russia. India’s armed forces, which for decades have been equipped primarily with Soviet and Russian weapons, continue to rely on cooperation with Russia. Russia’s export difficulties after the imposition of sanctions prompted India to buy cheap oil from Russia.

Multiple shifting alliances

The Modi government pursues a policy of multiple, shifting alliances, which ties in with India’s traditional policy of non-alignment. Samir Saran, president of the Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation, argues that today’s world is shaped by self-interest and speaks of “limited liability partnerships among nations”.

On the one hand, India is quite interested in creating a counterweight to China with the West, because territorial conflicts between India and China still exist and because China’s activities in the Indian Ocean have long been a thorn in the side of the Indian government.

At the same time, India wants to represent the Global South, which became clear at the G20 summit in New Delhi in September 2023. This concept of multiple alliances allows Delhi to act as a mediator, sometimes acting in coalition with the US or the EU, and on other occasions siding with Russia or the Global South. It is a political tightrope act that allows India to play a mediating role and thus also to strengthen its own global role.

Related articles:

Follow the money: The economics of media capture in backsliding democracies (15-minute read)

Great power competition, stillborn democracies and the rise of neo-authoritarians: The case of India (15-minute read)

India’s growing democratic deficit (3-minute read)

*Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Council of SIPRI. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: PM Modi with Australian, US and Japanese leaders in 2022 – YashSD/

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