India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pictured wearing a traditional Maithili turban during his visit at Janaki Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to goddess Sita, in Janakpur, Nepal, May 11, 2018.
Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, India has grown deeply divided along ideological and religious lines. Under his watch, Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has issued populist policies that harm religious minorities and dissenters, and its officials have largely remained silent about violence against such groups. In some instances, they have even gone so far as to laud such behavior.

In August 2015, Malleshappa Kalburgi, an Indian scholar who criticized Hindu idolatry, was murdered by Hindu right-wing groups. His death was later celebrated on Twitter by activists from Bajrang Dal, another right-wing Hindu group whose members are strong supporters of Modi. Later that year, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was killed by a Hindu mob for allegedly committing the “sin” of eating beef. After the incident, Mahesh Sharma, a minister in the Modi government, insisted that the murder of Akhlaq was merely “the result of a misunderstanding.” In 2017, after the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh, a prominent critic of Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP government accused opposition leaders of trying to “make political capital” out of the situation. In all of these cases, the prime minister failed to issue a statement of condolence or condemnation, leading the well-known Indian actor Prakash Raj to condemn Modi’s silence as “chilling.” This year, after the horrific rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu men who were determined to drive her community from their village, Modi only issued a condemnation after facing mounting pressure from opposition groups.

What is more, the government and Hindu nationalist activists now routinely suppress dissent and label protesters as “anti-national.” As a prominent example, in 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, was arrested for “sedition” and accused of being “anti-national” after he and his fellow students engaged in a peaceful (albeit controversial) protest against the government’s 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a terrorist trained in Pakistan who helped carry out the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. As noted by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the current vice chancellor of Ashoka University, it is Modi’s government that is “anti-national,” seeing as it is threatening India’s very democracy.

The Indian government and Hindu nationalist activists now routinely suppress dissent and label protesters as "anti-national."

In India, religious and political intolerance, as well as authoritarianism, is not the sole province of the BJP. In 1984, when the purportedly secular Congress Party held power, it allegedly looked the other way as Hindu mobs slaughtered Sikhs en masse following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi herself suspended democracy in India for two years in the 1970s, stifling dissent and jailing her opponents. Even as recently as 2013, the Congress Party government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to find and prosecute the unidentified gunmen who murdered Narendra Dabholkar, a physician who made it his mission to fight superstitions. To this day, his killers remain at large.

There is a key difference, however, between the transgressions of Modi’s forebears and his own: personal credibility. Modi is the only Indian prime minister to have such a nebulous record on human rights before taking national office. As chief minister of Gujarat, he faced accusations in the Indian Supreme Court for deliberately failing to protect Muslims during the religious violence there in 2002 and was banned from traveling to the United States. His Supreme Court case was eventually dismissed, and Washington hastily lifted the visa ban after he was elected prime minister, but Modi remains a polarizing figure—more popular than any other Indian political figure today but also mistrusted by large sections of Indians. He lacks the stature of Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader who, although imperfect, put India firmly on the international map; or of Indira Gandhi, who suspended but also restored democracy, and defied the United States by intervening in the Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh and conducting limited “peaceful” nuclear tests in the 1970s; or even of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a BJP prime minister who turned India into a declared nuclear weapons state and also initiated peace talks with Pakistan. By contrast, Modi is seen as someone who tacitly approves of and even endorses violence against political and religious dissenters and has been accused of “mainstreaming hate” through his Twitter account, which follows a number of violent Hindu nationalists who celebrate the murder and rape of Muslims and journalists critical of Modi.


The repercussions of the BJP government’s domestic policies are not merely confined to its borders. India’s international reputation is being affected as well. In 2015, Moody’s Analytics, a division of the bond-rating and risk management company, warned that India was at risk of “losing domestic and global credibility.” What may compound this effect is that the BJP government has also attempted to move away from its traditional commitment to nonalignment, as well as its moral positioning in international affairs, while failing to offer concrete alternatives. Many, particularly in the BJP, see nonalignment not only as Nehru’s greatest mistake, which led him into an unwinnable war with Beijing, but also as a position unsuited for dealing with the current power dynamics. India is now seeking a more assertive foreign policy because of its belief that the United States and the West are in decline and because of its deep unease about Chinese ambitions, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, where New Delhi needs to assiduously guard its interests.

Demonstrators stage a protest against a U.K. visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, April 18, 2018.
Toby Melville / Reuters

Despite India’s desire to maintain international influence, however, it is conflicted about the means to do so. This tension was recently on full display at the 2018 Raisina Dialogue, the Indian government’s signature multilateral foreign policy conference. Representing the camp in favor of a more aggressive foreign policy, BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav declared that India should give up its “strategic reticence,” considering China is destined to dominate, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, with its nakedly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (B&R). Striking a more establishment tone, the minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, while acknowledging that the balance of power was shifting away from multilateralism, suggested that India should implement global norms that would inculcate “a respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and transparency,” especially when it came to the B&R.

This tension hints at an ideological conflict within New Delhi that could hamper its efforts to balance against China, to offer an alternative framework for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and to assert its interests in the region. Nonalignment established India as a leading, independent power, one that did not have to take ideological sides during the Cold War and gave it the freedom to pursue security and economic ties with any country it wished. Shifting away from this powerful identity as a nonaligned nation would require India to carefully articulate its grand strategic framework in this post–Cold War world—something the BJP government has yet to offer.

In its willingness to demonize minorities and dissenters and move away from nonalignment without offering compelling alternatives, India has forgotten that since its independence in 1947, it has held a unique position within the global community. Although most rising powers are regarded with suspicion, India has escaped this fate. It is seen as a benign rising power, one whose ascent, unlike China’s, will strengthen the international liberal order—not challenge it. This reputation, which is now under threat, is based on its democracy, tolerance of diversity, and willingness to champion morality and challenge superpower hypocrisy. It has given India leeway to boldly carve its own path, enabling it to take stances that would have jeopardized the standing of any other country.

Although most rising powers are regarded with suspicion, India has escaped this fate. It is seen as a benign rising power, one whose ascent, unlike China's, will strengthen the international liberal order-not challenge it. This reputation, which is now under threat, is based on its democracy, tolerance of diversity, and willingness to champion morality and challenge superpower hypocrisy. It has given India leeway to boldly carve its own path, enabling it to take stances that would have jeopardized the standing of any other country.

During the Cold War, for example, India’s position of nonalignment enabled it to forge a close relationship with the Soviet Union, a bond that continues to this day, without incurring the outright enmity of the United States. In 2013, when the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York and strip-searched by U.S. authorities on the charge of illegally hiring and underpaying her housekeeper, the Indian public’s rage against the United States compelled New Delhi to take a series of retaliatory measures, such as pulling the security barriers surrounding the American embassy in New Delhi. The U.S. government finally allowed Khobragade to return home without having to face charges in a U.S. court. As Kishore Mahbubani, then dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, pointed out at that time, very few countries had the “geopolitical heft or the moral legitimacy to look the American government in the eye and demand such absolute reciprocity.”  

In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally called the Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, to thank India for remaining “restrained and objective” after Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Even outside of its relationship with the United States, India has often been able to take unconventional positions with impunity. It steadfastly refused to establish a diplomatic relationship with Israel until 1992, citing its opposition to religious nationalism and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Although no Indian prime minister had ever set foot in Israel until Narendra Modi visited last year, India was never criticized by the international community for taking an anti-Israel stance.

In the South Asia region, India fought four wars with Pakistan and intervened in Sri Lanka’s civil war, all without incurring an international reputation as an aggressor. Even when India engages in human rights abuses such as in Kashmir, or rejects emerging global norms such as the “responsibility to protect,” or is truculent on climate change, it is seen as a global player, as a sometimes recalcitrant but not revisionist power. This reputation is one of the reasons why India is moving closer to being admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), despite refusing to be party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (a treaty that all the other NSG members have signed) and railing for years against nonproliferation, calling it a neocolonial tool wielded by the nuclear “haves” (members of the NSG).

It is clear that India has thus far taken its reputation for granted, but Modi now risks damaging it through his government’s divisive policies, both at home and abroad. If India needs convincing, its eastern neighbor, China, makes the lessons clear: “authoritarian,” “intolerant,” and “ideological unstable” are not desirable labels for a rising power. Acutely aware of international and regional suspicion, and unwilling to risk conflict in the short term, the Chinese government constantly rebrands its policies in an attempt to project a more benevolent image. Witness, for example, the replacement of “peaceful rise” with “peaceful development” under former President Hu Jintao or the toning down of the translation of “One Belt, One Road” to “Belt and Road Initiative” under President Xi Jinping. India must take note before it too finds itself having to don these scarlet labels.

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  • MANJARI CHATTERJEE MILLER is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University. She is the author of Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China (Stanford University Press, 2013).
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