My plan was to hike in the Himalayas for three weeks. But my hotel room phone rang early on my second morning in Mumbai. “Mr. Carle, your car is waiting for you. And your two … guides.” “What car?” I asked. “What ‘guides’? And who are you?” “Your car is downstairs, waiting.” Well, I thought, there is no escaping my earlier life in the CIA. I went downstairs.
It turned out that elements close to the top of the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi were aware of my arrival and had decided to “invite” me on a tour. Eventually, they told me that they were dissatisfied with the image the American media presented of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Modi people wanted to show me “what India is really like,” and what the BJP government was seeking to accomplish.
They insisted that they were not intolerant, much less the fascistic, anti-Muslim nationalists some observers were describing them to be. Those were the biased criticisms of the anglicized, socialistic English-speaking Congress party elites with whom foreign journalists interact. For three weeks, they took me all over western and northern India and gave me better entrée to the corridors of power than most senior diplomats could ever hope to obtain. They showed me how India’s power elites, both BJP and Congress party supporters, see India, as well as what the Modi government wants for the country.
India’s national self-image is changing
For a thousand years, India was ruled by Muslims, like the Mughals, and later by the British. Hindus were powerless subjects. But Modi’s BJP government sees India as a Hindu nation. This is the concept of Hindutva, a view of Indian society and government, first enunciated during India’s struggles for independence against the British, which has guided the BJP since 1989.
Hindutva considers the Hindu religion as the basis of Indian culture and society. This is a powerful nationalistic break from the millennium of colonial subjugation and from the first sixty years of Indian independence, in which India embraced a secular, civic nationalist identity.
The Congress-party opponents of the BJP consider this concept of Indian society and government to be a dangerous betrayal of India’s multicultural, tolerant and socialist post-colonial democracy. A majority of Hindus seem to feel empowered by Hindutva, however. Modi and the BJP consistently win substantial support at the polls and in opinion polling, and Modi’s reelection in 2024 seems likely.
Hindutva strikes me as a powerful resurgence of national pride, but nationalism also can foster dangerous intolerance. Human Rights Watch finds that there has been an increase in protests against alleged government human rights violations since Modi’s election and that government use of violence to suppress dissent has also increased. The BJP dismisses such criticisms: “The BJP is at least as democratic as the corrupt and totalitarian Congress party and the Gandhis,” I was told repeatedly by BJP supporters.
India is a rising world power
One sees evidence of India’s economic dynamism everywhere. Partially finished new highways and skyscrapers loom overhead even as cows continue to sit placidly in the middle of major roads. Most educated Indians see themselves as citizens of a nascent world power. I was told repeatedly that “over 250 million” Indians have risen from extreme poverty in recent years, the BJP supporters intimating that this was due to Modi’s economic liberalism and industrial policies. The United Nations Development Programme presents a more nuanced picture, showing a decline in poverty that, while indeed impressive, began long before the BJP came to power.
Many Indians do feel that India’s bureaucratic sclerosis continues to slow economic development. Yet the World Bank now ranks India 63rd in its 2023 “Ease of Doing Business” report, up from 140th in 2014. When I was there, I sensed a country defining itself more by a burgeoning world-class economy than by timeless squalor, pre-modern stasis and colonial bureaucracy.
Much of India’s media expresses a simplistic, jingoistic nationalism due to pressure from the BJP according to government critics. Old ways of thought die hard, too: I heard many statements about how Russia remained a “trustworthy friend” and that the US was predatory and had sided with Pakistan for over sixty years.
These are vestigial echoes of a defensive, postcolonial, anti-Western, Congress-party-led India. The power elites with whom I met proudly highlighted India’s growing confidence as a global power. India is involving itself in the geopolitics of the Caucasus and the Indo-Pacific, aspiring to set global standards for semiconductor chips, building a world-class space program and diversifying its arms purchases as it develops its own arms production industry.
Many of the foreign policy experts with whom I spoke now consider India’s top strategic priority to be counterbalancing China. India’s leadership in the “Global South” or the non-aligned movements, participation in the BRICS organization (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and increasing involvement in Indo-Pacific military maneuvers and in US-centric organizations such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue all seek to strengthen India as a nascent, independent global peer to the US, China and Russia, but above all they seek to counterbalance China. This is why Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar talks of India as a “south-western power” — part of the Global South — but with “very strong bonding” to the West and to Western norms.
India has long sought a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The UN is nearly unreformable, though, and as a result, the world’s powers will slowly create alternative arrangements to address some of the problems of global governance. The G7 grouping of the world’s richest democracies has taken on increased strategic importance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One can thus expect India to pursue, and probably achieve, G7 membership, making a “G8.”
The death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar signals new audaciousness from a rising India
Nothing shows more strikingly India’s new bold and assertive attitude than the recent incident that occurred between New Delhi and Ottowa over the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, had been active in Sikh separatist politics. He organized an unofficial referendum among Sikhs resident in Canada on the independence from India of a new Sikh “country” named Khalistan. In June, Nijjar was gunned down in British Columbia. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared the killing had been an assassination, planned by India.
India, of course, denies having assassinated Nijjar, but for years has characterized him as a “terrorist.” India accused him of conspiring to organize a terrorist attack in 2018. India says that Trudeau has made his accusation in order to curry domestic political favor among Canada’s large Sikh population. It is likely, however, that Canada is telling the truth, given the diplomatic costs to Canada’s international standing of making spurious allegations about assassination and Trudeau’s explicit references to “credible allegations” collected by Canada’s intelligence agencies. The countries mutually expelled diplomat to show their anger. Relations between Canada and India have never been worse.
More significant than the tensions between India and Canada, however, is what the assassination says about the “stronger” India of Prime Minister Modi and about the Indian intelligence service’s apparently more aggressive role in India’s foreign policies.
“They need to understand that this is not the same India,” said Vineet Joshi, a senior BJP official. India now, he asserted, “is much stronger under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.”
India’s foreign intelligence organization is the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Its mission is the same as those of the American CIA, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or Britain’s MI6: to collect foreign intelligence on countries of strategic interest. But the RAW, like these other organizations, also conducts “covert actions.” Traditionally, the RAW has carried out covert operations against targets, including Sikh terrorists, within or near Indian territory. These operations are reputed to have included assassinations, but Nijjar’s assassination would be the first that the RAW is believed to have committed in a Western nation.
States often believe that covert actions offer them solutions to otherwise intractable problems. They believe that there will be no political cost because the actions are “covert.” The reality, however, is that most covert actions are eventually traced to the service that conducts them. When they become publicly known, they cause significant unintended negative consequences — just as we are observing with India’s likely assassination of Nijjar.
It is too early to know whether the “benefits” of the RAW’s assassination of Nijjar — eliminating an individual threatening India’s political integrity — outweigh the damage to India–Canada relations, to India’s standing and influence in the world and the possible increased hostility of India’s long-disgruntled Sikh population in consequence. Nijjar’s death, however, surely signals that India sees itself as “stronger” and freer to pursue its objectives unilaterally than at any time since Indian independence in 1947.
The event illustrates how India is now flexing the sometimes-obtuse muscles of a superpower. It also reveals a significant global expansion of the RAW’s covert actions, transgressing international and democratic norms in pursuit of what India considers vital national interests.
A newer, bolder India moves into the future
I never so much as glimpsed the Himalayas during my three weeks in India. Instead, I saw an India that will soon be the world’s third-largest economy, that is proud to now be the fourth nation to land on the Moon and that is playing a progressively large and confident role in international affairs. I saw an India that seeks influence in the “Global South” and closer relations with the West to counterbalance China. I saw an India that is struggling to overcome its colonial and socialist bureaucratic legacy and historical hostility to the West. I saw an India that, as it recently demonstrated, is ready to pursue its perceived national interests globally in spite of the costs.
It seemed to me that the BJP, in its efforts to free India of the harmful effects of a thousand years of foreign domination and three generations of socialist torpor and crony leadership, risks alienating its non-Hindu populations and sliding into intolerant majoritarian rule and a strong-man system of government. We will have to see.
[Newsweek Japan first published a version of this piece.]
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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