There’s a reason we’ve been following Narendra Modi’s prime ministership of a year and change closely. With India’s economy poised to start living up to its huge growth potential at a moment of great geopolitical ferment, a lot depends on how he steers the ship.Modi’s two big projects, indeed the two things his political identity rests on, are a liberal economic reform agenda and the zealous Hindu nationalism that earned him condemnation when he was governor of his home state of Gujarat. Clearly, given his campaign’s success, this combination appeals to a critical mass of Indians.But while Modi has made some great strides in foreign policy and enjoys a warm rapport with several key world leaders, his two incarnations, Modi the reformer and Modi the nationalist, are sometimes at odds. Exhibit A: Even as he entreats foreigners to do business in India, Modi has been cracking down on NGOs, most notably the Ford Foundation. According to the foundation, it’s because he carries a grudge against the human rights groups for contending that he neglected and possibly even exacerbated Hindu violence during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Now some claim he’s using the crackdown as a cover to go after critics, especially those close to the foundation. Reuters reports:
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case on Wednesday against a prominent critic of the prime minister for accepting foreign funds, amid concerns that overseas charities are interfering in the country’s domestic affairs.An official at the CBI said Teesta Setalvad faces charges of fraud, misappropriation of funds and violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. […]A home ministry official said an investigation by government auditors revealed her non-governmental organisation, Sabrang Trust, was accepting funds from the U.S.-based Ford Foundation without government permission. […]Since the start of the year, the government has cancelled the registration of nearly 9,000 charities for failing to declare details of donations from overseas.Critics have argued that the government’s crackdown is an attempt to stifle the voices of those who oppose Modi’s agenda.
The move against foreign NGOs closely mirrors recent moves by both China and Russia. That has some commentators fretting that Modi is not as liberal as one might hope. For our part, those fears are cause for (cautious) alarm about where his Hindu Nationalist side will lead the country. Majoritarian nationalism in the leadership of a multiethnic, multiconfessional state like India is, after all, a divisive and dangerous thing. India’s minorities, primarily its 180 million Muslims, have every reason to be concerned.So we have a dilemma. Modi the economic liberal is trying to build the institutions India needs to compete in the 21st century, while some of his domestic policies on matters of ethnicity and religious practice lead down a road more redolent of the 19th. If he chooses the latter, he may end up being, as we’ve worried in the past, the next Erdogan—an apparently liberal friend of the West who ends up becoming much less tolerant once it’s safe to let the mask slip.It’s much too early to know, and we dearly hope the people who think Modi is an authoritarian-in-waiting are just chasing shadows. But it’s something to watch out for, especially as his economic agenda runs into all sorts of difficulties.