Shaking with rage, a BJP-affiliated TV anchor openly challenges the writ of the (non-BJP) government of his host state. Modi puts Jammu and Kashmir under a lockdown for over a year. But there is not a squeak about the plight of the Kashmiris in mainstream Indian media, even as Indian Muslims are being systematically persecuted. The number of daily Covid-19 deaths in India is now highest in the world, and yet misogynistic plots spun around the death three months ago of a popular Bollywood actor continue to dominate daily headlines.
In Nepal, the voice of Nepali Congress, the main opposition, is supposedly at its weakest in the country’s democratic history. By the same standards, the voice of its Indian counterpart, the Indian National Congress, is non-existent. This is partly because of the INC’s leadership crisis. Partly, it’s a result of the BJP controlling the mainstream Indian media and virtually shutting the INC out of it.
Given its unmatched political sway across the country and steady silencing of opposition voices, perhaps it won’t be wrong to call India under Modi a one-party state. And just as Trump’s approval ratings remain unshakable among his hard-right supporters, Modi can do no wrong for his Hindu adherents. Whether or not Nepal returns to being a Hindu state, the nominally secular India is now all but one.
I have warned in this space about the creeping dangers China poses to Nepal. But a supposedly democratic BJP-led India confronts us with similar challenges. What we have traditionally admired about India—its vibrant democracy supported by a raucously independent press, its long tradition of religious tolerance, its syncretic culture—are applicable no more. What we have instead in India is a pro-Hindu government intent on hanging to power by shutting out its political opposition, demonizing religious minorities, and displaying blatant jingoism.
What moral right does New Delhi then have to ask Kathmandu to maintain a safe distance from Beijing? The way anti-China fervor in India has picked up after the emergence of disastrous economic numbers for the country has been intriguing. Initially, Modi did not want to pick a fight with a more powerful adversary. But then evidence began to emerge of the decimation of the Indian economy under Modi’s watch and his government’s abject failure to contain the Covid-19 crisis. Anti-China posturing then became the only tool to keep his public opinion intact—with the prolonged investigation into the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, much fanned by Modi-worshipping media houses, offering another useful distraction for the public.
Indians cannot expect such excesses of their government to go unnoticed in the neighborhood. There has been a steady slide of South Asian countries towards China—that authoritarian, one-party state that has become a scapegoat for most big dysfunctional democracies. But forget China for a bit. The problem is that India’s democratic neighbors no longer believe India under Modi believes in democracy, in or outside the country. (Nepalis certainly have not forgotten the inhumane 2015-16 blockade.)
India’s secular fabric has been torn asunder. Its public debate has coarsened and picked up xenophobic overtones. It seems to have no clear strategy on Covid-control. Its economy has been hemorrhaging ever since the suicidal 2016 demonetization. It treats its neighbors with utter disdain. Seriously, what is there to like or emulate about Modi’s India?