Modi’s Global Fandom

Democracy Abroad, Autocracy at Home

Arjun Appadurai

In June, Modi was hosted on a state visit to the US by the Bidens, and treated as some combination of Messiah, Pope and Rockstar. There was already evidence of his global Rockstar status when he visited Australia, Papua New Guinea and Japan for the Quad meeting in Hiroshima, where he was also the object of remarkably effusive acknowledgements by many other world leaders. In the US, Modi received 15 standing ovations during his speech to the two houses of the US Congress, was feted by the great CEOs of the US, including Indra Nooyi, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, among other ‘business jewels’ in the US firmament.

The African-American singer, Mary Millben, who sang the Indian national anthem for Modi, touched his feet, in a very odd and embarrassing manner. A few sharp questions from journalists and a letter of caution about Modi’s human rights record from 75 Democratic members of Congress to Biden were marginalised both by the media and by the political elite.

Barack Obama made his own cautionary remarks about Modi’s relationship to Indian minorities, and for this he was roundly lambasted. On his way back to India, Modi made the brilliant choice of stopping in Egypt, where he was greeted with great fanfare. These photo-ops made a mockery of the lives of India’s 200 million Muslims, whose precarity, fear and retreat in every part of India has been widely reported. It was the crowning display of Modi’s ability to trump his Indian record with his global triumphs. This worldwide adulation deserves some careful thought.

Some causes for Modi’s global star status are obvious. The first is the wish in the US, and in many other countries that are either directly or indirectly part of the American order of things, to contain, discredit and offset China’s growing power in Asia and the world. Many commentators have attributed Biden’s refusal to say a word about human rights issues in India during Modi’s visit to the undeclared cold war between the US and China.

The most important factor is economic interests: the US as well as many other nations around the world eye Indian markets, defence industries, and foreign investment openness with great interest. Modi has been striking big deals on all his global pitstops and signaling India’s warm welcome to global corporate overlords everywhere.

With the possible exception of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, no other leader has received such amazing bilateral acclaim in the US, or in other countries that vociferously oppose Russia’s military action in Ukraine. Not even Modi’s careful refusal to openly condemn Vladimir Putin has tarnished his welcome in the US. And Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s recent and curt dismissal of the feelers to India from the US about joining NATO could not take the bloom off Modi’s rose.

Modi’s global popularity derives from the fact that he meets the need for a charismatic leader in countries who are totally divided about their own leaders, have large oppositions to the incumbent leader or live in utter fear of the leader in power.

Middle Eastern countries are largely trapped between military and religious dictatorships and can hardly play the democracy card. Likewise, the countries of the African subcontinent are wracked by civil war, autocracies and weak civic organisations. The era of the Mandelas, the Nikrumahs and the Kenyattas seems now a dim memory.

Modi appears to be a saviour born in India but destined to save the world for democracy. In a possible Asian century, no other Asian leader can claim the credit for India’s combination of military and economic clout, strategic location and its carefully managed appearance of being a full-blooded ‘democracy’.

The truth is that Modi has tried to defang the Indian judiciary, to turn the bulk of the media into his lapdogs, and to make Parliament his version of an imperial court and tried to turn the once independent bureaucracy into his servants. Still, India remains framed in the Gandhian halo of homegrown democracy, in the Nehruvian ethos of playing on the global stage, with its tantalising promise of a billion customers waiting for the global market to come their way at a faster pace than before. Modi exemplifies democracy abroad while crushing democratic dissent with iron hands at home.

The Farmers Movement of 2021-’22 paralysed the Modi regime and forced it to reverse several aggressive neo-liberal agricultural policies.

Modi’s massive successes in overseas deals, hugs and red carpets reflects two deep forces, apart from those of global realpolitik. The first is that Modi has become the fantasy yardstick for charismatic popular leadership in many countries, even if he has another country’s passport. The second is that Modi massages this global cult status because of its potential to become the critical counterweight to help him, and his party, retain power in the face of many signs of slippage, reversal and revolt at home.

Still, why is Modi’s global fandom immune to the widely available information about his crony capitalism, his Hindutva dog whistle and his deep disdain for dissidence? One part of the reason is the powerful default image of India as a non-violent, plural and modernising democracy.

The second is a less-noticed factor. It is the thirst for a touch of glamour in the leadership of today’s big powers. Almost without exception, these are men in gray flannel suits, party apparatchiks and career politicians, whose messages seek to be more colourful than their images.

The open question is whether Modi can convert his global I-pop stardom into the politics of Manipur, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and others where the BJP flame is flickering, and 2024 feels awfully nearby.

[Arjun Appadurai is Emeritus Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. He lives in Berlin.]

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Vol 56, No. 8, Aug 20 - 26, 2023