Sabiha Tanvir, a preschool administrator in Allen, Texas, visits India a few times a year, whenever she can find the time. Her parents, who are retired, live in New Delhi. When Tanvir sees them she tries to avoid speaking about politics with her parents’ friends. But in these charged times, it can’t really be helped. A woman who is a friend of her parents has come to visit. Conversation veers toward the serious.
“We were talking about all these populist leaders, everywhere. This crazy prince in Saudi Arabia, Erdogan in Turkey, and [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and Trump, and then suddenly she objects,” Tanvir tells me.
“She’s like, ‘Modi is not like any of those other leaders,’” Tanvir continues. “She says, “I’m a big Modi supporter. I don’t want to hear anything against him.’”
“I was kind of taken aback,” Tanvir says. And for good reason: How could her mother’s friend, who knows the Tanvirs are Muslim, who knows how sensitive India’s religious minorities are to the issue of Hindu fundamentalism, not see the problem with celebrating a man like Narendra Modi?
This friend of the Tanvirs is not alone in her admiration for the prime minister.
On September 23rd, in Houston, Modi addressed 50,000 of his adoring fans at an event called “Howdy, Modi!” The crowd was largely Indian and Indian-American; live simultaneous translation was provided by the organizers into Hindi, English, and Spanish. A 90-minute song-and-dance “unique cultural program” introduced the star politician, celebrating “Indian-Americans and their contributions to the cultural, intellectual, and social landscape of the United States.” President Donald Trump himself addressed the crowd, cementing the friendship of the two right-wing populist leaders.
“Howdy, Modi!” was just part of the prime minister’s week-long celebratory tour of the United States, a nation he was legally barred from as recently as 2014. Modi was denied a visa five years ago for reasons that are not easy to forget, even though the U.S. government seems to have done exactly that. In 2002, as then-chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi presided over some of the worst anti-Muslim violence seen in India in the modern age.
For Modi’s supporters, what happened in Gujarat is considered irrelevant; ancient history. Nonetheless, without a full accounting, the story of Modi’s rise would be incomplete.
In February of 2002, 58 Hindu pilgrims traveling through a Muslim village were murdered. Their train was set on fire by Muslim villagers, who were responding to insults from the pilgrims. After this unequivocally horrible act, many Hindu residents of Gujarat exacted a terrible vengeance.
For three days, organized mobs of Hindus hunted Muslim residents. They cut fetuses out of pregnant women’s stomachs. They butchered men indiscriminately. They raped women and girls, forced children to drink gasoline, and set their victims alight when they were done with their barbarity. Not even the privileged were spared from the carnage. Ehsan Jafri, a Muslim member of parliament, was burned alive by a mob when he had the audacity to plead for the lives of the women and children who had taken refuge in his home. Violence burst out sporadically for months afterwards, enveloping the Gujarati Muslim population in desperate fear. The vast majority of the dead and injured were Muslim.
Official count of the dead stands at more than 1,000; the unofficial count is more than 2,000. Witnesses to these events testified that members of the mobs held in their hands computer printouts—lists of Muslim residences and businesses—which they had obtained from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, the local government.
“In almost all of the incidents documented by Human Rights Watch the police were directly implicated in the attacks. At best they were passive observers, and at worse they acted in concert with murderous mobs and participated directly in the burning and looting of Muslim shops and homes and the killing and mutilation of Muslims.”
“Panicked phone calls made to the police, fire brigades, and even ambulance services generally proved futile. Many witnesses testified that their calls either went unanswered or that they were met with responses such as: ‘We don’t have any orders to save you’; ‘We cannot help you, we have orders from above’; ‘If you wish to live in Hindustan, learn to protect yourself’; ‘How come you are alive? You should have died.’ ‘Whose house is on fire? Hindus’ or Muslims’?’ In some cases phone lines were eventually cut to make it impossible to call for help.”
But Modi, who as then-Chief Minister of Gujarat was ultimately in charge of stopping the violence, was subsequently cleared of the most direct responsibility by India’s Supreme Court. According to the official narrative, he probably never directly told anyone to kill Muslims (although this is strongly disputed by witnesses). But even if he never gave a specific order, inaction remains a kind of action. The Indian army ultimately had to be deployed to end the carnage; the police that answered to Modi’s government couldn’t really be bothered. And parading the bodies of the dead Hindu victims through the streets of Ahmedabad—as Modi ordered a day after the train attack—certainly didn’t help cool communal tensions.
For this willful neglect and refusal to govern at a moment when Gujarat needed a leader, Modi is known, by religious minorities in India and his critics all over the world, as the “Butcher of Gujarat.”
After the 2002 massacres, Modi was dragged into then-Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s office for a formal dressing-down. Much has changed since those days. Modi’s right-wing Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won two nationwide elections, both of which have placed him in power as Prime Minister. The BJP has touted its economic credentials, with Modi refocusing attention away from Gujarat’s history of communal violence and more towards the state’s economic transformation, a situation that might have less to do with Modi’s development genius and more to do with the path that Gujarat was already on.
But there’s a dark side—surprise, surprise—to the tale of Gujarat’s economic glory. During the state’s meteoric economic rise, ushered by Modi’s loosening of corporate tax regimes and business-friendly policies, Gujarat ranked as one of the worst states in India in terms of income inequality and poverty. In terms of infant mortality, Gujarat is 17th out of India’s 29 states, and almost 4 out of 10 children are underweight. According to the Human Development Index—which measures metrics such as life expectancy, income, and education—Gujarat’s overall quality of life fell sharply after Modi took office. Development has taken place, but the dividends of economic growth have not been spread equally among all Gujaratis.
During his first term, Modi was expected to export Gujarat’s successes to the rest of India, but he did not succeed. There was the demonetization scheme, in which Modi’s government, in an effort to root out black market corruption, eliminated the 500 and 1,000 rupee note. This led to widespread panic, as the informal economy in India—which is where most Indians work and spend their money—is based on cash payments. And the intended effect of rooting out corruption wasn’t even achieved, despite the Modi government’s 2018 declaration that it had. Black market tax-evaders simply shifted their assets around, rather than destroying their stashes of hidden cash.
It doesn’t end there. There are credible accusations of corruption floating around Modi’s prime ministership. Under Modi, the rupee has been devalued; it is now significantly weaker against the dollar than it was before his administration. And the unemployment rate has hit a 45-year high.
His adventures in security have also had disastrous effects. Modi has unilaterally suspended Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave the state of Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India, special autonomy. What this has meant in practice so far is an extended military crackdown on the state, and the suspension of communication networks. Kashmiri politicians have been placed under house arrest. This development has been brushed with the patina of economic development as well—now non-Kashmiris are able to buy property in Kashmir, and prosperity, we are told, will surge in the state.
In Assam, which is about one-third Muslim, the Indian government is currently building huge detention centers. These concentration camps are intended to house nearly 2 million Muslims who have been suddenly declared stateless because they can’t prove that they, and their families, often going back generations, were born and reside in India. (Muslims in northeast India are often slandered as Bangladeshi infiltrators.) Proving their residency and history would mean having access to extensive documentation—a heavy lift for a community that is on the brink of impoverishment. There are fears that this effort to enumerate the citizens of Assam will be exported to the rest of India, with devastating consequences for religious minorities.
Hate crimes have also increased: Nearly 90 percent of hate crimes committed in the last decade have taken place since 2014, when Modi assumed the prime ministership. Most of the victims have been religious minorities; attacks against Muslims and Christians have risen four-fold under Modi. The most notorious cases have been perpetrated by so-called “cow vigilantes”: gangs of Hindus who have targeted minorities they have identified or suspect of being involved in the (often) illicit beef trade. Perpetrators have experienced little official condemnation from the Modi government or from other politicians. Local prosecutions have also been sporadic, perhaps responding to a sensed lack of urgency from the central government.
And despite all this, Modi is one of the most popular Indian politicians ever. He received an overwhelming majority in the elections held this summer, and he enters his second term with a clear mandate. His approval ratings currently hover around 70 percent. Not since the days of Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru has India experienced this kind of mania for a national political figure.
So what is it that makes Modi so popular with Indians and the diaspora? His human rights violations have been egregious, his economic achievements mediocre. What compels Modi-mania?
For one, there are some real achievements under Modi’s belt. The Gates Foundation recently made the (albeit, controversial) decision to honor the prime minister for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or the Clean India Mission, which has dramatically increased the access Indians have to basic sanitation, long a source of shame for India. 110 million toilets have been constructed over a five year period, which will do much to reduce open defecation. (There are criticisms of Swacch Bharat—outside observers argue that open defecation hasn’t been reduced quite as much as the government claims.)
For another, Modi is an expert at telling stories about himself. He has masterful control of his own narrative, and even unqualified failures like demonetization have been seen as positive by the Indian polity. Modi is very talented at spinning disasters which would sink any normal politician as successes. This is because Modi has convinced a large segment of the Indian public that he is on their side, no matter what.
This is partly due to the fact that Modi is genuinely likable. He is at once a grand inspirational figure and a man who comes from an exceedingly humble background. He was born into a poor, low-caste Gujarati family; as a young man, Modi worked at his family tea stall. His story contains within it the perfect image of India’s rags-to-riches rise. That’s why when Modi grabs a broom and sweeps the streets of Delhi to promote Swacch Bharat, it’s not seen as pandering. If, however, his elitist, blue-blooded political rival Rahul Gandhi were to do something similar, it could never be as well-received. This political theater connects with voters, no matter how transparently the action is for the cameras.
And of course, there are the soaring speeches that Modi is famous for all over the world. Modi’s oration is much more electric than that of the staid and boring Manmohan Singh, his Congress party predecessor, or that of the less-than-charismatic Rahul Gandhi. You get the feeling that Modi is speaking directly to the aam aadmi, or “common man,” as the Hindi saying goes. And Modi has worked hard to sell himself as a brand. He has written a book for young people exhorting them to study hard, and has even put out a book of poetry.
The leniency that the Indian public has shown towards Modi’s failures can also be explained by the sense, as Modi supporter Nisha Quasba put it to me last week, that at least someone is trying to do something about India’s myriad social and economic problems.
“Every policy has its unintended consequences, but at least now there’s someone finally daring enough to actually do something about India’s problems,” she said. Indian politicians—not unlike politicians everywhere—have a reputation for being an untrustworthy bunch. At best, they are perceived to be complacent in the face of extreme poverty. At worst, they are genuinely corrupt and profit off kickbacks and bribes. Modi is perceived to be neither.
There’s also a sense that Modi and the BJP have restored a sense of honor to India, and has made the country—which was so downtrodden and oppressed for so long—great again. Comments from leagues of YouTubers who eagerly watched Modi’s Houston speech bear this out.
“You get a feeling India has arrived to its rightful place in the world.”
“May he rule India for many more years and restore its past Glory.”
“India is become [sic] a superpower.”
There’s a gendered element here as well; it’s not just general honor restored, but a specific kind of masculine virility that India is imagined to now embody through Modi. Nationalist right-wing strongmen are having a global moment right now, from the United States to Israel to the Philippines, and India is no exception. Case in point; BJP apparatchiks have bizarrely boasted about Modi’s “56-inch chest” when speaking about his willingness to defend the nation from Muslim terrorists from Pakistan.
That brings us to last week in Houston, the climax of this masculinist, nationalistic political theater. Modi approached the podium accompanied by Donald Trump, both of them smiling and waving at the ecstatic crowd. And then Modi did something that I didn’t expect him to do, something that was so politically ingenious and genuinely moving that even I started getting emotional. Modi described how Trump introduced him to his own family, when Modi visited the White House in 2017. And then Modi, pausing for effect, proudly told the President of the United States that now the tables have turned. Modi spread his arms wide and told Trump that he would now like to introduce Trump to his family. The crowd went absolutely wild. They stood up, they screamed, they pumped their arms up and down.
The appeal makes perfect sense. Here was the prime minister of India, a poor country, on equal footing with the president of the most powerful nation on earth. A man from humble beginnings, with that oft-mocked accent, making Indians feel powerful and respected, proving to the world that Indians will no longer be shoved aside for the feelings of anyone, whether colonizers, foreign racists, or Muslim terrorists.
But none of this works, really. None of this rampant nationalism, this hero worship, this cult of personality, even this genuinely moving political theater: None of it is really effective at solving any of India’s problems. Whether it’s the uneven development of Gujarat, the failed economic schemes that have decimated the poor, the lynched bodies of Muslims and Christians—killed by attackers who knew they’d probably get away with their crimes—the imprisoned Muslims languishing in squalid detention centers: None of these things will, in the long run, actually make India any better, or richer, or safer.
Growth in Kashmir will probably explode, as non-Kashmiris will be able to buy land in the state, leading to increased foreign investment. The (Hindu) Kashmiri Pandits, who were expelled violently in the 1990s from their ancestral homeland, will be able to return in greater numbers. But do Indians really feel that the price they will pay for this development—the curtailment of civil liberties and the imposition of martial law—is worth it?
Sabiha Tanvir doesn’t think so. Last week, she and her family drove the two-and-a-half hours from Austin to Houston, joining about 12,000 other protestors outside the NRG Stadium, chanting slogans and hoisting signs. They were accosted by Modi supporters, who were literally wearing saffron (the official color of Hindutva, or the ideology of fundamentalist Hinduism) as they attempted to cross the street to join the rest of the anti-Modi protesters. Tanvir was told to “go back home,” home being, presumably, Pakistan.
Nonetheless, she stood there with thousands of other people, united in their opposition to Modi, to his brutal human rights violations, his uneven achievements, and his creepy cult of personality. They chanted and shouted and brandished signs, declaring their refusal to forget the costs one must pay in order to achieve a Modi-approved future.
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