There was a time, between 2005 and 2014, when the current Prime Minister of India and then head of the Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, was not allowed to enter the United States. Washington vetoed him in application of a US rule that prohibits the issuance of visas to foreign government officials who promote or are responsible for serious restrictions on religious freedom. The veto on Modi, a Hindu nationalist politician, was raised in connection with serious episodes of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims that devastated Gujarat in 2002, when the host of the G-20 summit in New Delhi was head of that western state. of India.
A lot has changed since then — the international context and Modi’s political status more than his convictions — and that veto is now a distant memory. India is a more powerful country, and the United States needs it in its fight with China. Last June, Modi was received for the umpteenth time with the highest honors in Washington, joining the very select club of leaders who have been able to address the US chambers twice, an honor granted to figures of the caliber of Churchill and Mandela.
The two episodes represent a significant approach to a deeply controversial leader. Modi, 72, prime minister since 2014 as head of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, heads an India that is registering economic and geopolitical achievements while suffering – according to his critics, supported by multiple facts – a democratic deterioration.
Modi is a charismatic politician, with enormous ambition — “I ask the private sector to also step forward. We have to dominate the world,” he said, in his speech for the 75th anniversary of independence, very popular in India.
He presides over a country that in the last two years has recorded unparalleled growth in the major economies, which achieved a great feat in its lunar program in August, which is gaining increasing influence on the international scene and which, according to the Bank’s governance indices, World, has taken clear steps forward in its effectiveness in multiple criteria, such as management, regulatory or anti-corruption effectiveness. At the summit, a diplomatic success was achieved, shepherding a consensus that seemed difficult.
India modernizes with important structural investments, reduces poverty. The road ahead is enormous, like the lag with respect to its great rival, China, and nothing guarantees that it will be smooth, but there are data that show improvements in recent years.
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However, Modi is weighed down by very serious accusations —coming from the opposition and from the vast majority of experts and study centers in the democratic world— of being a leader who promotes an exclusive and dangerous Hindu nationalist vision, and who leads a political project which deteriorates the quality of Indian democracy in multiple aspects. The criticisms are supported by a wide catalog of controversial facts.
The main indicators of independent Western study centers consider that the deterioration is serious. Reporters Without Borders places India in 161st place out of 180 in terms of press freedom, a marked decline compared to the past. The annual studies by Freedom House, The Economist Intelligence Unit or V-Dem coincide in pointing out a gradual deterioration. The Indian Government considers that these reports are mere opinion, which have no objective value.
The problematic facts are very varied. Early in his first term, Modi pushed through a law to reform the Supreme Court’s selection system, touching on a notoriously sensitive area for democratic balances.
Years later, he had a law approved that favors the accelerated granting of citizen status to undocumented migrants who profess the main religions of the region except the Muslim one. The Government then claimed that it was a measure to protect threatened minorities in surrounding countries. Critics pointed out that this was the first major gap in the secular and inclusive spirit of the Indian Constitution.
Subsequently, measures have been approved that have complicated the work of NGOs and the media, through inspections and bureaucratic obstacles, of which channels such as the BBC have been subject, which precisely tried to clarify in depth the events in Gujarat.
Modi’s government has resorted to draconian communications blackouts in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has had decades-long special status withdrawn. On the other hand, the recent sentence to two years in prison against the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, for alleged defamation against Modi, triggered special alarm. Gandhi was stripped of his parliamentary certificate. But the Supreme Court has suspended the sentence.
The streets of New Delhi in these days of the G-20 summit are full of posters that portray the effigy of the leader together with various political messages linked to the meeting. The circumstance —at least unusual in democracies, usual in other types of regimes— reflects the extraordinary role of Modi, whose popularity is much higher than that of his party.
His supporters consider him the driver of great steps forward for India, of more effective and less corrupt governance. His detractors denounce that this popularity is maintained through the alteration of the political, judicial and media playing field and dangerously cultivating the Hindu identity feeling, including the marginalization of other communities, especially the Muslim one, with more than 200 million members. citizens. At the New Delhi summit, he presided over the negotiations behind a poster that, instead of India, put Bharat, the name of the country preferred by Hindu nationalists, fueling speculation that he will soon launch the offensive to make that the reference place name for the country, when now, in the English version of the Constitution, it is India. Another probable element of controversy.
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