A New Awkward Ally

Why Washington shouldn’t be so quick to embrace India’s new prime minister.

Narendra Modi might have drawn nearly 20,000 people to hear him speak at Madison Square Garden this weekend, and earned more attention by announcing he will maintain a strict religious diet even during his dinner meeting in Washington with President Obama on Monday. Not to mention that since he began his campaign for prime minister in India, he has won praise from Westerners as someone who can reinvigorate his country’s faltering economic growth. But Modi’s minor-rock star status in the United States largely overshadows other parts of his story that suggest a need for America to be more cautious before cozying up to India’s new leader.

During the Bush administration, Modi was denied entry to the United States for allegedly violating religious freedoms while he was governor of the state of Gujarat, and the apprehension that led to the decision has not disappeared. If anything, in the three months since Modi took office, his party has continued to make political use of religious bigotry in the hope of electoral success. At the same time, Modi’s foreign policy record so far also hasn’t inspired much confidence, as he failed in recent visits with the leaders of Japan and China to display the political adroitness that made his reputation in Gujarat.

In India, there is already evidence that his political honeymoon is over. One of the few polling agencies to monitor voter sentiment in the country continuously, Cvoter, has aggregated the answer over time to the question: “Which party can best manage/handle problems facing our country today?” Since Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister in late May, the levels of trust in his ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) have declined rapidly to where they were a month before the elections, and the BJP—after a national victory that ensured one-party parliamentary rule in India for the first time since 1984—has lost a series of important local elections. The party appears to have misread the votes it got in May as support for its far-right nationalistic tendencies, rather than its economic priorities.

Consider Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, where the BJP lost eight of 11 elections to the state legislature in September. The BJP’s campaign there offers good reason for Americans to remain wary of Modi. It was personally spearheaded by Amit Shah, the BJP president, who picked as the party’s chief campaigner a controversial Hindu priest named Yogi Adityanath, known for his harsh rhetoric targeting Muslims and Christians. In 2005, Adityanath led a “purification” drive in the Etah region of Uttar Pradesh that reportedly converted 1,800 Christians to Hinduism, and he has since been quoted as saying, “Being Muslim—right. Being Muslim in India—wrong.” Among the main themes of his speeches as he went around the state campaigning for BJP candidates was the danger of “love jihad,” a term coined by Hindu right wingers in India for their belief that young Muslim men are preying on unsuspecting Hindu women.

Modi has not taken any blame (or credit) for Adityanath’s campaign, but it is difficult to believe that he was not consulted for or clued in on it. Shah is Modi’s confidant and was minister for internal security in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister there. He was appointed BJP president largely because Modi backed him for the post, and the parliamentary system requires constant interaction between the two.

The cynical use of ethnic hatred as a political tool in Uttar Pradesh was a disturbing reminder of why so many questions were raised about Modi’s national rise. In 2002, while he was chief minister of Gujarat, violence broke out across the state after the death of 58 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire. The clashes resulted in the death of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus, raising serious questions about the role of the police and Modi’s administration. As a result, in 2005, the Bush administration denied him a visa under a 1998 law on violations of religious freedoms. The ban was only lifted because, as head of state, Modi now enjoys diplomatic immunity, but he has remained unapologetic about his failure to curb the violence in his state.

Hartosh Singh Bal is political editor at the Caravan in Delhi.