Reviews | Narendra Modi is the most popular leader in the world. Be careful.
NEW DELHI — All over India’s capital these days, posters of Narendra Modi portray him as the great modernizing prime minister driving India forward. But these posters also suggest the opposite: an emerging cult of personality and an authoritarian streak that is pushing India backwards.
In immediate political terms, the personality cult may be succeeding. With an approval rating of around 78% in his country, Modi is by far the most popular major leader in the world today, according to Morning Consult.
With the opposition in disarray, Modi is set to win a third term as prime minister in next year’s election.
While Modi votes extremely well, many Indians around the world are appalled that he has made India less secular and tolerant, creating what some see as Jim Crow Hindu nationalism that marginalizes religious minorities, especially Muslims. And it’s not just marginalization: Muslims are periodically accused of slaughtering cows, which are sacred to Hindus, and lynched. In a typical case this month, a mob in Bihar state accused a Muslim of carrying beef and beat him to death.
Modi has presided over a crackdown on news outlets and Indians have been repeatedly arrested for their tweets. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, in a new report, classified India not as a democracy but as an “electoral autocracy” ranking 108th out of 179 countries in its Electoral Democracy Index.
“It’s very scary what’s happening,” said Bunker Roy, founder of Barefoot College, one of India’s most famous rural development initiatives. “I think we are heading towards authoritarianism.”
India was once a correspondent’s dream, resonating with the sound and fury of strong opinions. But nowadays people are often silent when I ask about Modi. Reporters Without Borders now ranks India 150th for press freedom out of 180 countries worldwide.
“We work under a cloud of fear,” wrote Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the Kashmir Times, in a courageous New York Times essay this month.
A lesson from Asia is that economies can thrive under authoritarianism – see the stories of South Korea, Taiwan and China – but religious extremism is more perilous because it can take scale, creating fissures and sucking in the oxygen of education and economic management. Pakistan has gone through its own drift into religious fanaticism and offers a cautionary tale.
Pakistan was founded by a not particularly observant Muslim, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who drank alcohol and appointed a member of the (now persecuted) Ahmadi religious minority to be the country’s first foreign minister. But then, in 1977, General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq seized power and sparked a wave of conservative Muslim nationalism that is still tearing Pakistan apart.
That would be my nightmare for India, as the fires of religious extremism and grievance are easier to ignite than to extinguish. But honestly, I don’t think India will fall that far. I agree with Urmi Basu, a civil society leader from Kolkata, that India’s democracy will survive just as it survived a retreat from democracy under Indira Gandhi. India still has a federal system which gives power to the states, and which constrains Modi.
In my eyes, Modi’s extraordinary popularity is based not only on demagogy, but also on real achievements (plus he’s very good at claiming credit for less real achievements).
Let’s talk toilets. Millions of Indians still practice open defecation, which spreads diseases and parasites. A national survey in 2020-21 was released this month and found that 21% of rural households still lacked access to a toilet – but that’s a significant improvement from nearly 60% not there. having no access in 2012. Modi has championed an end to open defecation, which may sound undignified for a politician, but it saves lives.
Modi also encouraged the use of gas cylinders for cooking, rather than burning sticks and cow dung, which ignite kitchens to dangerous levels. This affects poor women immensely as some 600,000 Indians die every year from this indoor air pollution.
Port and road construction has improved, and Modi has implemented a digital ID and payment system that brings villagers into the banking system. Modi isn’t the main reason for this technological marvel, but he presided over its expansion.
“Even his critics admit he’s very good at economic development and infrastructure projects,” said Alyssa Ayres, an India scholar and dean of George Washington University. Ayres said during Modi’s early years as prime minister he was less polarizing and focused on development.
More recently, the authoritarian streak has become more prominent.
Modi is now for all of India what he was for many years as the boss of the state of Gujarat. There he was a pro-business leader who oversaw strong economic growth, but his record was badly damaged by a pogrom against Muslims under his leadership in 2002 – there is disagreement over his degree of complicity, but he l certainly mishandled. It has also undermined pillars of civil society like the Association of Independent Working Women.
Looking ahead, what I fear is that the authoritarian Hindu nationalist Modi will eclipse the economy-boosting, toilet-building Modi. To imagine the worst-case scenario, just look at the sad mess in Pakistan today.