Ties, turnout and truths: What intellectual centres in the West say about 2024 polls

India stands at a critical juncture while the BJP dismisses global criticism as reminiscent of a colonial mindset.

WrittenBy:Sumaiya Ali
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Modi’s temple of lies. India a democracy in name only. Progressive South is rejecting Modi. Modification of India is almost complete. Authoritarian drift in the world’s largest democracy. Why is Biden silent on Modi and India’s slide towards autocracy?

These are among over 50 global media headlines on Indian politics that were picked by former Indian Overseas Congress chairman Sam Pitroda, for a social media post targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid the Lok Sabha poll campaign. The response from the BJP, which usually dismisses such commentary as merely a reflection of a “colonial” mindset, wasn’t unusual.

Last week, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said if certain Western media outlets “criticise our democracy, it’s not because they lack information. It’s because they think they are also political players in our election.” Referring to criticism of the seven-phased elections amid a heatwave in an article, he said, “in that heat my lowest turnout is higher than your highest turnout”.

While elections in India have always intrigued foreign commentators and the media alike, the 2024 election is said to be a critical juncture for Indian democracy. Modi seems set to secure a third term in power, a feat matched only by the country’s first PM. The allegations of a crackdown on critics have grown, as have concerns about constitutional freedoms. Several groups have meanwhile alleged inaction on part of the Election Commission to act against the PM’s remarks on Muslims and the BJP’s alleged violations of the Model Code of Conduct.

But what are the centres of intellectual capital, the lawmakers, and the media in the West saying about the elections and these issues this time? 

In US, an official line in variance with global groups

Vedant Patel, deputy spokesperson of the US State Department, recently said at a press conference that the US will not send observers to India during the polls as it is an “advanced democracy”.

But the American state line differs from the position taken by US-based groups and commentators.

Freedom House, a US-based non-profit, had in 2021 downgraded India’s status from a democracy to “partially free democracy”. And after similar rankings by a few other global groups, the Modi government had earlier this year approached the Observer Research Foundation to develop a homegrown index.

Ashley J Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commented during a discussion on April 17 that India is moving to be a country controlled by the Modi-led BJP but asked if a single party dominance is healthy for a democracy. “But if we are on the cusp of a transition to a BJP system, do we have reasons to be concerned about the health of Indian democracy? I don't mean that it simply concerns minorities, so on and so forth, though that is commonplace.”

Alyssa Ayres, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs who joined the discussion as a panellist, said there is some “concern” among the United States and different parts of US civil society on “some of the directions” of India’s politics. 

Irfan Nooruddin, a professor of Indian Politics at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, said on a show – on the American public broadcaster Public Broadcasting Service that – it is a test for the opposition in India if they can get voters to focus on the religious intolerance in the country, as Modi government has projected itself as a transformative one. He said the American partnership with India is a way to counter China, but it will be “awkward” if a US president invests in a country which is moving towards autocracy. Nooruddin also mentioned the inauguration of the Ram temple and how it underlined the blurring of the line between state and religion, with a political figure playing a religious role.

An analysis by the Harvard Kennedy School, meanwhile, pointed to the role of Rashtariya Swayamsevak Sangh, a “Hindu-nationalist paramilitary organisation”, in the rise of PM Modi; how people vote for him and not the party he represents; and the weakening of India’s federal structure. “The election process is more protracted than ever, lasting for six weeks, which greatly benefits Modi’s party with its exceedingly well-stocked campaign coffers filled by oligarchs and by alleged abuses of tax and investigative agencies.”

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commented that the BJP is campaigning on pro-Hindu bona fides, national security credentials and Modi’s charisma, while the opposition claims there is growing systematic inequality in India. “PM Modi has already instructed the country’s top bureaucrats to start preparing a 100-day roadmap to guide his third term which shows his confidence in emerging victorious in the elections.”

The Indian government had earlier objected to a US state department remark on Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest, which had come in response to a question by a Bangladeshi journalist in exile, in the run-up to polls.

Before the announcement of the election schedule, the implementation of the controversial citizenship law had also been commented upon in the US, with the state department expressing concern on March 11.

Mixed views in the UK

Earlier this year, Lord Karan Bilimoria, a member of the UK parliament, praised PM Modi and called him one of the most “powerful persons on the planet”. 

However, another British parliamentarian, Lord Indarjit Singh, on April 18, raised the issue of violence in Manipur. 

Foreign secretary David Cameron then pointed to former BBC journalist David Campanale’s report for the Belief Alliance about attacks on Christians in the northeast Indian state. Cameron said religious tolerance and freedom of religious beliefs is important and that such issues have been raised with the Indian government and that should be the case in this incident as well.

Campanale had also stressed on the European Parliament’s resolution on Manipur which was passed in July 2023 and asked the Indian government to protect religious minorities in the country.

British media, meanwhile, has pointed to questions of freedoms and inequality.

The Guardian has repeatedly questioned the official action against critics, including the alleged targeting of opposition leaders. “It can’t be a coincidence that not even one arrest was from the ruling party,” it said in an editorial last month. 

“Polls suggest that Indians are most worried about unemployment, inflation and income insecurity…Most voters say corruption has got worse under Modi’s rule. Unsurprising perhaps, as recent economic growth so disproportionately benefits the rich that India is more unequal today than under colonial rule.”

Meanwhile, Sky News, in a report in March, noted that critics refer to Modi as the “Indian variant of fascism”. Referring to the stigmatisation of the Muslim minority, it said, “Mr Modi is undoubtedly the most popular Indian politician of the 21st century. He is both loved and loathed. Followers hail him as a transformative leader that has given the majority of Hindus their rightful place. His powerful mix of religious identity, national pride and development has propelled him way ahead of his challengers. Critics refer to him as an authoritarian polarising politician, representing an Indian variant of fascism and under his rule institutions and traditions of secular India have been vastly eroded.”

The Economist tried to explain why this is the world’s most expensive election. “It is not just because of its size”.

Germany observing with ‘admiration’

The German foreign office spokesperson’s remarks on Kejriwal’s arrest had invited criticism from Indian diplomatic officials, but its ambassador later said that the country was “admiring” the world’s largest elections.

Die Linke, a German Left political group, had raised questions about the human rights situation in India, with the growth of Hindu nationalists and the risk to Dalits and Muslims. It was signed by the in-charge of India affairs under the German Parliament Human Rights Committee. 

On April 1, the German parliament responded and said the government was monitoring the situation in India closely and raising issues with the Indian government accordingly.

The Manager Magazin noted, “Modi recently campaigned strongly for Hindus, who make up around 80 percent of India's population. Critics accuse him of doing this at the expense of the country’s approximately 200 million Muslims and thus increasing tensions. Hindus are preferred in many areas of public life and in the workplace.”

In France, discussions on democracy

In an opinion piece on Le Monde on April 20, French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot wrote that the elections stand out for their undemocratic nature and incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi is turning democracy into “electoral authoritarianism”. 

Western governments are well aware of India’s democratic backsliding, but they pursue short-term policies, betting on India to counterbalance China in their Indo-Pacific strategies and seeing the country as a big market, especially for arm sales, he wrote.

He said federalism has been weakened and predicted decisions for Modi’s third term, including that “he will do something on the lines of Uniform Civil Code” – which many apprehend will come in the shape of a unilateral decision impacting the religious freedoms of the Muslim community.

PM Modi’s remarks calling Muslims as “infiltrators” and “people who have more babies”, during the poll campaign, had sparked criticism in most Western media outlets.

During a show on France24, anchor Leela Jacinto started the segment by saying that Modi had sparked an outcry over a speech he made in Rajasthan, and a panellist noted that it was “no surprise”.

In an interview to France24, Jean-Luc Racine, a senior fellow at the Asia Centre, said the election is about Modi and his posters have been everywhere, from the G20 promotion material to the BJP manifesto. What is striking is the slogan of “Modi ka waada” (Modi’s guarantee) for farmers and his different schemes, he noted, adding that Modi is seen as a deity and called the new avatar of Hindu god Ram. This, amid a decrease in democratic milestones, he noted.

Louise Tillin, Professor of Politics at King’s College, commented on another France24 show that “at the heart of these elections is the battle of the future of India’s democracy”. 

Meanwhile, prominent media outlet Le Monde mentioned in a report that since Modi has come to power in 2014, “several BJP-ruled states have passed anti-conversion laws, highly stigmatising and threatening religious minorities, Muslims and Christians, whose members can find themselves in prison on mere accusations of wanting to convert Hindus”.

Australia and New Zealand

After ABC journalist Avani Dias left India after the Narendra Modi government’s response to her report on Sikh separatists, her channel put out a video titled “Modi government targets ABC journalist amid media crackdown during Indian elections”. However, Australian journalist Peter Hartcher noted in the video that Australia’s position is that India is a great future economic prospect and is seen as a strategic counterweight to China, and the Australian government will be extremely reluctant to criticise India’s increasingly authoritarian leadership.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, NZ Herald republished an Associated Press piece which underlined that “Modi’s two terms have seen civil liberties in India come under attack and the country implementing what critics say are discriminatory policies. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened, violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority, and government agencies have arrested Opposition politicians in alleged corruption cases.”

Meanwhile, in Russia, a reference to ties

Gleb Makaverich, a researcher at the Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, in a piece for Russian portal Vedomosti, said the governing alliance will get another term and India will continue to build partnerships with Russia.

Andrei Kortunov, the scientific director of the Russian International Affairs Council, noted that Modi continues to be a popular figure despite problems faced by the Muslim minority. 

Russian news website RBC mentioned the freezing of the Congress’s bank accounts, the action against opposition leaders, and the suspension of 141 parliamentarians in December. 

In an interview with Russian portal Izvestia, Denis Alipov, the Russian ambassador to India, stressed on the pressure from Washington. A piece on the website noted that Indian experts are confident that the results of the parliamentary elections in India, regardless of the outcome, will not affect relations between Moscow and New Delhi.

“Since the Cold War, India, thanks to the policies of Jawaharlal Nehru, has become one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. This political tradition, to a certain extent, continues to this day, and India now does not position itself as part of the collective West or, conversely, a close ally of the Russian Federation. Therefore, even regarding the Ukrainian conflict, India has taken a purely neutral position.”

The author is a media researcher.

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