Asha is a third year War Studies student with an interest in human rights and South Asian security. In this article, she examines the geopolitical risks caused by the election of Modi and his extremist Hindu nationalist agenda.
In 1947, a newly independent India emerged from the legacies of empire, and set upon the path to achieving justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens through purposeful acts of economic and social transformation. Indeed, this was the ‘first task’ outlined for India by then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in January 1947. In contrast, the India of today has radically departed from this Nehruvian idealism, and instead, India is witnessing the rise of Hindu nationalism, economic fragility and foreign policy setbacks. This drastic shift has been attributed to the election of one man: Narendra Modi, who has been deemed by the Eurasia Group – the world’s leading political risk consultancy – as the ‘fifth biggest geopolitical risk of 2020’. But why does the election and subsequent re-election of Modi in 2019 pose such a threat to the future of India? This article will answer this question by examining the controversial social policies pursued by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the harmful risks they are likely to have on India’s future foreign policy and economic ambitions.
Since being elected to power in 2014, Modi and his government have pursued a ‘contentious’ social agenda which has threatened the secular and democratic principles upon which India was founded. At the heart of this agenda is the rise of Hindutva nationalism, which seeks to protect the “Hindu-ness” of India by creating and maintaining a national identity based on a shared language, religion and common enemy (read: Pakistan). Consequently, religious minorities (Christians, Jews and Muslims), are deemed as second-class citizens who can never fully express their patriotism to the state. These exclusionary beliefs have been particularly applied to Muslims within India, as in the eyes of Hindu-nationalist ideologues, Muslim loyalty to the country is inherently suspect.
The close association between Modi, the BJP and Hindutva has for obvious reasons thus caused enormous amounts of anxiety amongst India’s Muslims, as since assuming power, Modi’s government have failed to address the rising acts of violence taking place against Muslim communities. Instead, Modi’s election has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups, and spurred lynch mobs to arise across the country, killing Muslims and lower-caste people suspected of slaughtering cows – a sacred animal in Hinduism. For example, in September 2015, a mob in the town of Dadri dragged Mohammed Akhlaq from his home and beat him to death simply because a calf went missing. However, rather than addressing these acts of violence, the BJP has used communal rhetoric to incite violent vigilantism. Indeed, according to the data journalism initiative ‘India Spend’, 98 percent of India’s 125 cow-related hate attacks in the last decade occurred during the tenure of Modi and his Hindu nationalist government.
Further threats to India’s pluralistic and liberal polity have occurred more recently in two notable way. First, Modi and his government stunned the world in August 2019, when they revoked Article 370, which granted Kashmir a certain amount of autonomy, including its own constitution and freedom to make its own laws. Revoking the article has subsequently sparked outrage, and will increase the likelihood of conflict between India and Pakistan by worsening the already-heightened tensions with Pakistan, who, alongside the Kashmiris, fear a demographic transformation of the region from majority Muslim to majority Hindu. It is likely however that Modi was fully aware of the backlash that revoking the article would have, as prior to the decision, his government called for Kashmir to be placed on an indefinite lockdown with thousands of additional troops being deployed to the area and telephone and internet services have been suspended. As a result, hundreds of people in Pakistan and Kashmir have rallied against Modi, burning effigies of him and torching Indian flags.
Second, has been the controversy surrounding the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, which has stripped 1.9 million people of their Indian citizenship. The act has since been accused of being ‘anti-Muslim’ as it grants migrants of all of South Asia’s major religions a clear path to Indian citizenship — except Islam. The act thus erodes India’s secular foundations by making ‘religion a criterion for migrants to acquire Indian citizenship’, which further demonstrates Modi’s plans to turn India into a Hindu-centric state in accordance with Hindutva. However, critics have also suggested that the act serves to distract the public from another pressing issue: the economy, as for the first time in decades, India’s economy is slowing significantly. Indeed the Eurasia Group have argued that ‘Modi has spent much of his second term promoting controversial social policies at the expense of an economic agenda’. The impacts will likely be felt in 2020 as intensified communal and sectarian instability will negatively impact India’s foreign policy and economic ambitions.
Looking first at India’s foreign policy, Modi’s harmful social agenda is likely to hinder India’s strategic alliances, which has the potential to undermine the country’s global power ambitions. The Kashmir controversy is arguably at the heart of this, as despite the intent to keep the issue a domestic concern, its implications undoubtedly extend beyond India and Kashmir, and will force a number of countries, namely Pakistan, China, and the US, to recalibrate their foreign policies with India. A number of key issues thus arise in the international sphere which are likely to impact the stability of the South Asian region. Most notably is the fact that the India-Pakistan rivalry will worsen. The decision to revoke Article 370 has been regarded by Pakistan as a symbolic breach of the status quo, hence Pakistan have downgraded already-tense diplomatic ties, expelling India’s top diplomats, and suspending nominal trade with India. The likelihood that Pakistan will prepare conventional military operations, most likely along Kashmir’s border, has also increased as Pakistan’s major political parties are taking hard-line positions on the Indian move, calling it a choice between ‘dishonour and war’.
The turbulent relationship with Pakistan is also likely to affect regional politics, especially involving Afghanistan. We have been told that the US is on the cusp of a settlement with the Taliban, which has largely been enabled by Pakistan. If signed, it will allow the US to end its nearly 18-year war with the insurgency, and withdraw troops from the country. However, India’s decision regarding Kashmir will influence whether this settlement can be sustained as Pakistan is likely to remind the US that it has been a major player in facilitating the peace process with the Taliban. This will be done in the hope that if Pakistan increases it support for Kashmiri rebels, the US will turn a blind eye; if America fails to do so, there is the potential that Pakistan will retaliate by pulling its support from a future settlement in Afghanistan.
However, it is not just US policy in Afghanistan that is at stake by India’s decision to eradicate autonomy to Kashmir. India’s role in assisting the US to contain the rise of China also appears threatened, as China is likely to back Pakistan’s efforts against India in forums such as the UN Security Council. China may also strengthen its military alliance with Pakistan and provide cover for provocative actions towards India. Moreover, US-India ties appear directly threatened due to India’s plans to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia in an effort to modernise its military – an initiative prompted by the US to encourage India to shake itself of its perception as a “reluctant power”. As a result, there is the potential that Congress will impose sanctions on India, and that the purchase of an anti-missile system from Russia will impeded further sales of US military equipment to India: the strongest bilateral relationship India has to date.
The economic consequences of Modi’s election are also noteworthy. Before his election in 2014, Modi made broad promises to modernise India’s economy, fight corruption and aggressively assert India’s centre-stage role in international affairs. He however, has fallen short of these promises. Instead, he has undertaken a highly unorthodox economic experiment by invalidating 86 percent of the country’s circulating currency, overnight. This draconian policy has been a severe blow for millions of small businesses, as well as unnerved corporate India which has deterred investment. The current situation is subsequently a far cry from the job-generating economic boom that Modi was expected to deliver in 2014; instead, economist and Noble Prize Winner Abhijit Banerjee has described it as ‘a crisis’ where ‘people are poorer now than they were in 2014-15’.
Moreover, not only have Modi’s economic promises failed to materialise, they have also further aided the rise of religious nationalism in India. According to the Eurasia Group, under Modi the Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has become increasingly powerful, which is highly problematic as they oppose market opening and support economic nationalism. The Eurasia Group thus argue that ‘an empowered RSS means that Modi has less room to manoeuvre on structural reforms, just as the economy is starting to sputter’. The RSS’s influence has clearly been evident in Modi’s decision to drop out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations last year and will be a big reason why India is unlikely to re-join in 2020. A weakened economy will thus fuel the rise of Hindu nationalism, which will continue to harm economic development. Indeed, this is already being seen, as in December 2019, India’s economic growth slowed to 6.6 percent – its slowest pace for six quarters.
Far from Nehru’s vision of a ‘tryst with destiny’, where peace and freedom were said to be indivisible, India under Modi is experiencing the rise of sectarian instability, foreign policy setbacks and economic fragility. The root cause of these issues? The rise of Hindu nationalism, which has been emboldened by Modi and his BJP who propagate social and religious division. In the coming year, India is thus likely to continue to witness threats to its secular bases, as the state will continue to seek to advance policies which disenfranchise non-Hindus (particularly Muslims). Indeed, the impacts of Modi’s controversial social agenda are already taking their toll, with the likelihood of conflict with Pakistan becoming a greater possibility with each passing day. As a result, the security and stability of not only India, but the South Asian region as a whole, has been drawn into question.
India has all of the material capabilities to emerge as a great power. However, in order to achieve this status, India in the 2020s must endeavour to shake itself from the grip of Hindutva which threatens the very foundations on which the republic of India was built.
 Stuart Corbridge and John Harriss, “Sovereign, Democratic, Federal, Socialist, Secular: The Invention of Modern India,” in Reinventing India: Liberalisation, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy (Polity Press, 2000), p. 20.
 Sumit Ganguly, “India Under Modi: Threats to Pluralism,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1 (2019): p. 87.