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India’s Bulletproof Man?

What do you call a larger-than-life leader who relies on personalistic governance, incites ethnic and religious animus, underwhelms on policy, and seems to lose no support despite it all? And whose name isn’t Trump?

Altamar’s 19th episode takes a close look at India’s Narendra Modi, prime minister of the world’s largest democracy and a man who often tends to slip under the radar in the global discussion about populist leaders.

Elected in 2014, Modi is approaching the last year of his first term. As he heads into 2019 elections, he has more failures than successes under his belt. But the question is whether Indian voters care.

Altamar’s guest this week, Sadanand Dhume, a South Asia analyst and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says there’s little evidence that they do.

“Demonetization is something that most serious economists would regard as one of the most stupid things that any Indian government has done in the last 25 years,” he says, joking that the move was something “too crazy even for Venezuela.”

“But it was surprisingly quite popular among India’s masses,” he notes, “despite it being clumsily implemented, apart from being a daft idea to begin with. Many of the poor saw it as a sort of Robin Hood moment, and even though the windfall never materialized, we have yet to see evidence that it’s put Modi in political trouble with voters.”

On the foreign policy front, Modi has seen a bit more success, strengthening relations with the US and with Shinzo Abe’s Japan. But relations with India’s perennial problem neighbors, nuclear-armed China and Pakistan, haven’t gone so swimmingly.

Modi’s hardball foreign policy approach to the two countries hasn’t yielded many concrete results, Muni notes.

“China has been rubbing India the wrong way with its ramped up outreach in the neighborhood through the Belt and Road initiative, and it’s been stepping up its military presence in the Indian Ocean. There’s this perception that Modi’s tough anti-China stance is just considerable hot air.”

The hosts worry that ostensible policy failures would push Modi to more thoroughly embrace Hindu nationalist elements of his party in an attempt to galvanize voters. BJP leadership in recent years has increasingly adopted Hindutva, an Hindu fundamentalist ideology, as a party platform, with the result being an increase in discrimination and violence against Muslims and Christians.

“It’s not just violence, but also erasure,” says Peter, noting that the Hindu nationalist government of the state of Uttar Pradesh has removed the Taj Mahal from its official tourism brochure since it was commissioned by a Muslim emperor.

“The Taj Mahal is now un-Indian,” he says. “It sums up perfectly how dangerous and alienating this revisionist ideology is. And what a lot of people now fear is that Modi is going to embrace this more and more as he needs to rally his base around him.”

Sadanand says that, while many in the BJP will certainly be leaning more on Hindutva in the run-up to next year’s elections (particularly if they get authorization to build a symbolically-charged new temple in place of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya), Modi isn’t in the sort of political trouble that would spur a wholesale embrace of it on his part.

“I don’t see it becoming central to Modi’s campaign plank,” he says. “But I am worried about Hindu nationalism.”

“As a phenomenon, it’s certainly something that has grown recently. I think the state of public discourse on Islam and Muslims is at its lowest point ever. There are many people belonging to religious minorities—particularly Muslims but to a certain extent Christians as well—who feel excluded by this Hindu nationalist project. There’s no denying that and it is indeed troubling.”

The episode is available for streaming and download.


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Episode 23