India and Pakistan have avoided a full-scale war. But don’t expect Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tone down the rhetoric any time soon. He’s facing an election starting in April, and a national-security crisis plays to his strengths.
The Indian journalist Hartosh Singh Bal joined The Masthead to review the political history that led to this moment for Modi. He looked back to a story from The Atlantic’s archives for our series The Present Past.
This issue will give you a snappy synthesis of the current politics. If you want to go deeper, listen to the full conversation with Bal on our podcast feed. The audio is available on SoundCloud, or you can get it directly in your podcast player.
By Matt Peterson
Pakistan and India halted a tit-for-tat escalation of military hostilities with Pakistan’s return of an Indian air-force pilot on Friday. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown little interest in changing the subject. “It is our policy to hit enemies inside their territory,” he said Monday. “I don't like to wait for long.”
After a string of political losses, Modi needs to expand the audience for his electoral message, and the vernacular of national security is the perfect medium for him. Modi’s rise has been facilitated by a focused ideology of right-wing Hindu nationalism delivered through a permissive media environment, says Hartosh Singh Bal, the politics editor of The Caravan, a monthly magazine published in Delhi, India.
In a wide-ranging interview, Bal and I walked through the political history that enabled Modi’s rise. We started back in 1959, when The Atlantic published Arthur Bonner’s “India’s Masses: The Public That Can’t Be Reached.” The India that Bonner described is in some ways the mirror image of the country today, and the contrast is revealing.
This issue of The Masthead focuses on political analysis. Listen to our full conversation to hear Bal’s assessment of India’s media environment—and his personal story of being fired after publishing inconvenient facts.
Westerners often wax on about “spiritualism” in India. Modi has delivered his own version of it. Bonner came to India as an outsider, and saw a country that, to him, needed a “spiritual rapport between the ruler and the ruled” in order to function as a nation. “This tendency to use the term spiritual with some aspects of Indian culture—there is a sense of Western patronage. It's also very dangerous,” Bal said. “This constant reportage of the great spirituality of this culture—this tradition has been something Indians have bought into themselves. And it has created a sort of inverted pride in an ancient culture, which is largely not factual but based on a mythology about the past.” That pride has become virulent at critical moments, including in bloody anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, in 2002. Modi’s defiant reelection campaign as the state’s chief minister in the immediate aftermath of the protests created the template for his current politics.
Modi’s nationalism has alienated a diverse coalition of Indians. That’s clearest when his economic policies come up for debate. The government withdrew large-value banknotes from circulation almost overnight in 2017 to fight corruption. The move was crippling for the poor, and government data showed that the policy did not achieve its intended effect of cutting off the supply of corrupt cash. Modi’s fellow Hindu nationalists didn’t mind, Bal said, but plenty of Indians did. “In Punjab, where people had not bought into the myth of Modi, because they were not part of the Hindu nationalist project, they were critical of demonetization from day one,” he said. Modi’s message resonates loudest with people at the upper end of India’s caste ladder. But add in people at the bottom—including Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims—and viable opposition coalitions emerge. “The real challenge to Mr. Modi is when this number tends to come together in opposition to the Hindu nationalism,” Bal said.
Modi’s opponents are fighting on his turf. The Congress Party, which led India to independence in the 1940s, has won a string of state-level victories in recent months, suggesting that Modi is vulnerable. Bal sees great resilience in Modi’s ability to set the terms of debate, however. The Congress was a secular party back when Bonner trailed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but his descendant, the new party leader Rahul Gandhi, has embraced his Hindu identity in an effort to counter Modi’s appeal. That’s a mistake, Bal said. Gandhi might win desperation votes, but he isn’t going to sway the upper-caste Hindus who make up Modi’s core. “As a long-term, viable political strategy, I think Rahul Gandhi is playing into the hands of Mr. Modi,” Bal said.
Security fears allow Modi to speak beyond his base. Modi faces a political threat when his diverse opponents can unite. The language of national security helps divide them. “When you have this idea of terror, a nation under threat, these divisions tend to be subsumed by this larger nationalism, at the core of which is Hindu nationalism,” Bal said. The latest cycle of violence started with a deadly terror attack on Indian paramilitaries in Pulwama in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “Before this event in Pulwama, what he was facing was a difficult election. Unemployment was at a record high; his economic record was not something he could defend very well. Now all that is out of the window.”
Emails to the prime minister’s office seeking comment were not returned.
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