Why did leaders of the great liberal democracies in the Western world, with the tiny exception of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, not raise even a whimper on the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir clampdown? Or on the sectarian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the violent crackdown that ensued in its wake? Or the year-long farmers’ agitation in 2020-21 that also saw the government use violence against peaceful protesters?
Why are leaders in the Christian-majority West silent on the dramatic spike in attacks against Christians by Hindu nationalists in India? Why have leaders in Muslim-majority countries in West Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa (with the exception of the Turkish president and former Malaysian prime minister) not called out the rising violence and hate speech against Muslims under the Modi government?
In fact, why have so many Gulf monarchies actively embraced his leadership?
Why is Joe Biden inviting India (while leaving out other democracies in South Asia, such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) to high-profile “democracy summits” where Modi, who openly rooted for the re-election of Donald Trump on American soil before the 2020 presidential election, can wax eloquent on how the “democratic spirit is integral to our civilizational ethos”?
Why are the trans-Atlantic powers and their allies trying to include India in their own little cliques of liberal democratic powers, such as the Group of Seven or the so-called “D10”? Why are the world’s most famous crusaders of democracy pretending all is well in the “world’s largest democracy” when it’s not?
The answer is two-pronged: the rising importance of India in the global geopolitical order; and how the Modi government has recognized and instrumentalized the same to shield itself.
India’s unique position amid China’s rise
As a constitutional democracy that has weathered the many throes of the postcolonial period, India occupies a unique position in the modern international landscape. It has come to serve different normative and pragmatic purposes for different parts of the world at different junctures of history.
Countries around the world have consistently seen India as a critical asset in securing their own national, regional or global interests. India’s large domestic market has bolstered this position, especially after the economy opened up in 1991.
This is doubly true in today’s context of shifting geopolitical dynamics, marked most prominently by a rising China and the growing prominence of multipolarity. In this emerging reality, India is crucial for both the Western and the non-Western world.
For the former, India carries a strong counterbalancing value against a China that is assertive unlike any time before in modern history. For the latter, India’s more assertive role as a developmental partner and a middle power for Global South countries provides alternative pathways for progress, integration and upliftment.
While “India as a counter to China” is hardly a new equation in the Western mind, it has become more pressing. Modi’s rise to power and his re-election overlapped with what may be called “the Chinese decade” – Beijing spreading its wings far and wide under the leadership of Xi Jinping and offering a non-Western model of global development through the ginormous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Basically, as Hindu nationalism in India grew in size and scope, so did Chinese muscle-flexing in Asia, Africa and South America.
From the Modi government’s perspective, this incidental synchronization of the local and the global has been a complete boon, as it has raised India’s global utility. This, in turn, meant a significant rise in the threshold for criticism of undemocratic practices at home by foreign governments who don’t want to alienate New Delhi at any cost.
In short, by pitching India as a strong-willed, high-capacity, modern-day regional power with global aspirations, the Modi government has insured itself against global condemnation of its controversial policies at home.
What exactly has it done, though?
First, under Modi, India has taken a frontal role in defining and advancing the “Indo-Pacific” discourse, heralded by his speech at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. This had been preceded by an overall eastward push, with his government upgrading India’s existing Look East Policy into the Act East Policy as one of its first major foreign-policy moves.
Subsequently, India crafted “the Quad” along with the US, Japan and Australia. Simultaneously, it expanded the trilateral Malabar Exercise to re-include Australia, thus in effect turning it into the Quad’s joint maritime exercise.
In the meantime, New Delhi upgraded its bilateral strategic partnerships with Australia, France (an Indian Ocean resident power) and major Southeast Asian powers such as Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
Closer to home, it started to pay greater attention to its neighborhood under what is often referred to as the Neighborhood First Policy. One of the things this entailed was taking Bay of Bengal regionalism more seriously through renewed diplomatic focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
In essence, under Modi, India is embedding itself deeper into a dynamic network of new and old regional and transregional alliances.
These moves are driven by India’s core desire to build greater strategic depth and geopolitical clout in a volatile period of history. But at the same time, they also reflect New Delhi’s growing confidence in mobilizing an anti-China alliance in the broader Indian Ocean Region – from the eastern shores of Africa to the western fringes of the Pacific Ocean.
This augurs very well with both the great trans-Atlantic powers (the US, UK and European Union) as well as their “like-minded” Pacific allies (Japan, South Korea and Australia). For them, a more confident India helps keep Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific within a manageable spectrum.
Beyond the Western powers, India’s renewed diplomatic posture serves well for Asian and African countries.
Southeast Asian powers, who now find themselves in the middle of an increasingly fierce US-China melee, see India as a reasonably effective middle power that can moderate the battlefield and lead meaningful political, economic and strategic partnerships – both bilaterally and through minilaterals like the Quad.
Yes, there are serious concerns about India’s actual delivery capacity, but members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations want to avoid taking sides in the US-China tussle and a more forward-looking India helps them chart out substitute pathways for bilateral and regional cooperation. By doing so, it will be better equipped to preserve its own strategic autonomy or “centrality” within the Indo-Pacific discourse.
Role in the Middle East
For West Asia, India has emerged as a critical economic and strategic partner. This includes the oil-rich Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, which continue to host a massive Indian immigrant population contributing to their labor economy.
The Modi government has actively reached out to the Gulf monarchies not just to secure India’s energy interests, but also to provide them with the alternative strategic partnerships that they have been seeking to decrease their dependence on the US security umbrella.
Separately, India’s relationship with Israel has reached unprecedented levels under Modi, abetted by common economic and defense interests and also an ideological congruence between the Hindutva and the Zionist projects. It has also managed to keep its strings with Iran intact despite the occasional hiccups.
For most of West Asia, Modi’s India is a promising new friend, so much so that five Muslim-majority countries in the region have conferred their top honors to the Hindu nationalist leader.
Role in Africa
For Africa, where countries are looking for optimal options for material development, India is opening up new frontiers of cooperation. This it is doing in collaboration with Japan through the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), launched in 2016, which focuses on development cooperation, infrastructure and connectivity, capacity- and skill-building and people-to-people relations.
Arguably, the AAGC is a response to China’s BRI, which has already penetrated deep into the African continent. Beyond the AAGC, India’s own outreach to Africa has only bulged over the years. As this analysis by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) notes, India is now Africa’s third-largest trade partner and seventh-largest investor, and has about US$10.5 billion in total credit commitment through its Export Import (EXIM) Bank.
Several multisectoral projects in the continent are being funded with Indian assistance, while New Delhi’s Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program is helping build capacity in these paradigms.
All of these make India a critical partner for the aspirational African economies.
Beyond these, the Modi government doubled down on pitching India as a positive global force during the Covid-19 pandemic. He ensured that India’s leading position in global pharmaceutical supply chains, including vaccine manufacturing, is recognized by the world. He kept reminding countries that India is the “pharmacy of the world.”
Under the ambitious Vaccine Maitri initiative, India has gifted nearly 13.8 million shots to low-income economies in Asia, Africa and South America. Combining deliveries of made-in-India vaccines under commercial contracts and the UN’s COVAX alliance, India has supplied a total of more than 115.4 million jabs across the world.
Modi also used the pandemic to rejig South Asian regionalism by creating a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Covid-19 emergency fund.
These moves have placed India in a coveted group of non-Western international actors that have been critical in maintaining both global vaccine supplies and vaccine equality in the face of unequal access due to hoarding by wealthy Western countries.
In all, India is more important for the world now than ever before – and Modi knows that very well. So even if things get really bad at home, he will continue to dodge criticism from foreign governments, never mind punitive action such as sanctions.
Yes, there might be some noise from one leader or two on specific issues, but the bulk of them will continue to entertain him. For all its moralistic grandstanding, the so-called “liberal international order” is fundamentally designed to privilege realpolitik interests over “soft issues” like human rights or civil liberties.
For those concerned about the democratic downslide in India, this is bleak news.
Angshuman Choudhury is a New Delhi-based policy analyst, currently coordinating the Southeast Asia Research Program at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @angshuman_ch