Peripheries: Testing the world’s largest democracy

Nine-hundred million people will be eligible to vote in the 2019 Indian general election starting on April 11. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi is seeking re-election after their landslide victory in 2014. The Economist described Modi as ideologically “at the fringe” of even his own nationalist party. However, the world seems to be experiencing a bout of historical amnesia as to just how problematic Modi is.

Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, when violence against Muslims in Gujarat resulted in the deaths of over one thousand and displaced around 150,000 over the course of two months. Amid widespread allegations that the BJP and allied Hindu forces aided and even instigated the violence, Narendra Modi was actually denied entry into the U.S. due to his involvement in the riots. After denying the allegations, he was completely unapologetic, saying that he was satisfied with his handling of the riots.

Now, as Modi holds the position of prime minister, attitudes toward the politician have drastically changed, as has the political relationship between the U.S. and India. Trump has called Modi a “friend and declared in numerous campaign speeches that he is a “big fan of Hindus.” Moreover, Hindu nationalists have called Donald Trump a “hero,” rallying behind his Islamophobic rhetoric and including his image in ceremonies of worship. Reciprocally, Hindu nationalists in the U.S. are among Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. Americans studying domestic politics and polling need to understand this dynamic in order to get at the root cause behind the rise of this particular group.

In our globalized world, where the distance between political events across the globe is shrinking, it is imperative to understand that ideology spreads. Even if Americans don’t have a personal stake in the elections of India or Brazil or aren’t directly affected by Brexit, populism and xenophobia have ultimately become global phenomena that must be addressed accordingly. Americans who express moral outrage over leaders in Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia have not spent as much energy condemning Modi in India.

This may be partly because much attention has been drawn to Modi’s economic policy — exactly as he intended. Both Modi and Trump coat their right-wing policies in the facades of development, job growth and prosperity. The parallels between economic discourse, border security and xenophobia under Trump and Modi are eerie. However, while Trump’s treatment of immigrants has rightly received massive press coverage, Modi’s disenfranchisement of millions of Muslims in Assam has barely been discussed in national media.

It shouldn’t take an episode of “Patriot Act” (2018–) for people in America to realize that something has gone badly wrong in India (although it is certainly worth a watch). Those who care about human rights and politics at home ultimately do have a stake in politics abroad, especially in a country that is directly emboldened by the rhetoric of our president and his base. This April, we all have a duty to pay attention to India. Global democracy is at stake.