Respected British magazine in its June 15,, 2023 issue termed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the most popularly elected Prime Minister despite his odious treatment of the minority Muslim community. With an approval rating of 77%, the Prime Minister is more than twice as popular as his party. He is by far the world’s most popular elected leader. Asked to give relative weight to the factors including the failure of the opposition Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi, whose great grandfather Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi, and father Rajiv Gandhi were all elected Prime Ministers of India. Yet Narendra Modi’s popularity is attributed mainly to the ineffectiveness of his opponents and 65% to his political skills.
Analysts attributed Narendra Modi’s popularity only 15% which could seem surprising, given how conspicuous it is. Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor of The Guardian in a write-up (dated 8th September 2023) wrote at length that President Joe Biden took fresh steps to lure India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi into an alliance designed to contain China, at a bilateral meeting in Delhi where the pair struck a series of commercial and defense deals covering remote-controlled aircraft, semiconductors, and quantum computing. However, the question of press freedom also dominated the agenda on the eve of the full G20 summit. Before the bilateral at the Prime Minister’s residence, the US press corps, used to being given privileged access to the Joe Biden were told to remain outside in a van, out of eyesight of the two leaders. Biden received a Bollywood-style greeting after landing onboard Air Force One. The meeting was given an added symbolic importance as Biden was able to seize upon Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision not to attend Modi’s much-vaunted summit.
The US is trying gradually to make the traditionally neutral India a more explicit partner and part of a wider political and defense alliance in the Indo-Pacific. The White House said in a statement after the meeting that Biden welcomed the joint commitment to democratic values, and specifically that he welcomed an Indian defense department request to buy US-built remotely controlled aircraft. India has several disputes with China but it has been wary of joining an implicitly anti-Beijing alliance. Kurt Campbell, the White House Indo-Pacific envoy, said relations with India continued to be a work in progress. The two leaders agreed to progress agreements reached in June this year when Modi visited Washington, including a deal to allow General Electric to produce jet engines in India to power Indian military aircraft.
The US does not expect to make immediate progress in shifting India from its largely neutral stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine but believes that if it can start to replace Russia as a leading arms supplier to Delhi, India will have greater latitude to criticize Moscow. The episode with the journalists accompanying Biden underlined the state of press freedom in India despite the two leaders’ stated shared commitment to democracy. Narendra Modi released a handful of official photographs of the meeting, showing the two leaders seated side by side and chatting amiably. Biden decided to delay his planned post-summit press conference and hold it at his next stop in Vietnam, reflecting the tight press controls being mounted by the Indian security services. The incident comes after protracted negotiations were needed before Indian officials agreed to Modi taking one question from US reporters during his visit to Washington in June this year.
“The president believes the free press is the pillar of our democracy,” the White House spokesperson Karina Jean-Pierre told journalists onboard Air Force One, insisting they were doing all they could to secure media access. At the Washington press conference with Joe Biden in June the one question to Modi came from the Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui, who asked the Hindu nationalist about accusations of repression of Muslims in India and the country’s record on human rights. Siddiqui was subsequently subjected to “intense online harassment”, the White House Correspondents’ Association said, “including from people with ties to the prime minister’s political party”.
India ranks 161 out of 180 in this year’s Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. In recent years, journalists have been arrested and some are stopped from traveling abroad. Dozens are facing criminal prosecution, including for sedition. The government has also introduced sweeping regulatory laws for social media companies that give it more power to police online content. Several media outlets critical of Modi have been subjected to tax searches, including the BBC after it aired a documentary that examined the prime minister’s role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time. The US treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, joined the bilateral, as did the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Indian attendees included the external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and the security adviser Ajit Doval.
Biden is bringing cash for the World Bank and promises on the climate crisis that he hopes will show debt-ridden economies in Africa that he has their interest at heart in a way that the Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure project does not. President Biden sets great store by personal relations in diplomacy and has done as much with Narendra Modi as with any other world leader to cultivate a personal relationship. He continues to raise human rights but it is clear Biden has put the treatment of religious minorities in India on a relative back burner. Chinese-Indian relations were damaged before the summit as the Chinese ministry of natural resources website displayed Arunachal Pradesh and the Doklam Plateau – over which the two sides have feuded – as included within Chinese borders, along with Aksai Chin in the western section that China controls but India still claims.
President Biden’s preference for personal relationship with world leaders was evident in Vice President Kamal Harris’s recent visit to the Middle East to explain US Middle East policy to the Arab leaders. Kamala Harris’s visit to Dubai demonstrated President Biden’s strategy of having the Vice President personally lead U.S. efforts to start conceiving what the “day after” may look like for Israel, the people of Palestine, the region, and the world—the Biden administration is making it clear that it is taking a comprehensive, strategic approach to managing the current crisis. Her visit also demonstrated President Biden’s preference that unlike many other Vice President’s in past administrations Joe Biden would like Kamala Harris to shoulder the responsibility of conducting foreign affairs as personal emissary of the US President. It, however, remains to be seen whether future Presidents would follow such practice and its justification thereof.
Coming back to India the writer believes that given Pakistan’s strong belief that it is India’s nemesis and is destined to continue its unending enmity despite millions of Muslims had voted with their feet to remain in Pandit Nehru’s India and not go to army ruled Pakistan. The present anti-Muslim pogrom conducted by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Jajata Party adherents is difficult to explain for a country which always prided itself as the largest practicing democracy in the world. One hopes that India will steer clear of this quirk of history and will regain its true self as the largest democracy in the world.