I have had a longstanding interest in how and why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s global image as an upholder of the great democratic values remains untarnished in spite of the detailed, vocal and well documented information about his regime’s hostility to Muslims and various other minority constituencies which is widely available.
Indeed, this side of Modi has been pointed out by civil rights organisations both in India and the West, more or less since the terrible anti-Muslim attacks of 2002 in Gujarat, when Modi was the state’s chief minister. These anti-minority policies and ideologies have also been a source of real and present danger to student activists, journalists and other critics of the Modi regime in many parts of India.
Last month, 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. There were very few false notes to disturb the hosannas of praise that greeted Modi at every public event organised for him in the US.
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 second is the implosion of Pakistan’s polity and economy, due to its open battle between Imran Khan and the military, its soaring levels of debt and inflation, and its several cruel climate disasters. Pakistan is dangerously unstable, and thus it no longer has any use as a counterweight for the US in Asia, or for any other country, perhaps other than for China. The tilt to Modi’s India makes special geopolitical sense for the US.
The third 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 interests everywhere. So, it appears that we know the three tails that wag the dog of Modi’s popularity (China, Pakistan and global trade). But there is something deeper that needs to be considered.
This deeper wind behind Modi’s sails may have little to do with his bearlike embraces of other leaders, his witty oratory or his high-fashion Indian clothing sense. It has to do with the fact that every country he visits is deeply ambivalent about its own leadership. The US is the best example of this phenomenon.
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 effort to capture 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.
The varieties of leadership envy across the world are numerous. Japan, Australia, many Latin American countries and many parts of Northern Europe and the Baltic have leaders whose names are barely known outside their own countries. Even Putin, till recently a bit of a global poster boy himself, has slipped down the greasy Ukraine pole and was challenged by the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, and had to make a face-saving deal through the good offices of the tin pot ruler of Belarus.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil has too many wounds from his years in prison and political exile to reach behind the Western hemisphere. Leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France, Olaf Schultz of Germany and Viktor Orban of Hungary (for all their differences) are preoccupied with European battles. They can never aspire to hero status in the Global South because of the relatively recent memories of European imperialism.
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.
Saving the world
Modi appears to be a savior born in India but destined to save the world for democracy. He is not doddering like Biden, mentally ill like Trump, wounded and dangerous like Putin, or terrifyingly entrenched like Li Xinping. 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 dismantling democracy at home.
Indeed, the massive PR in India that accompanies his overseas pilgrimages is surely also a big asset for him within India, where various election statistics cast doubt on his and his party’s lock on power in the forthcoming general elections of 2024.
It does not seem too far fetched to argue that Modi’s global PR surge, as the “leader we do not have”, is a crucial counterweight to his shaky base in India, where the democratic spirit is stronger than the democratic institutions that Modi has been steadily trying to erode. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo yatra, his highly successful trips to the United Kingdom and the US, and the recent election results in Karnataka, all suggest that he and his sister Priyanka are not a pair to dismiss lightly.
The Farmers Movement of 2021-’22 paralysed the Modi regime and forced it to reverse several aggressive neo-liberal agricultural policies. The rise of parliamentarians such as Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress, Congress spokespersons like Supriya Shrinate, journalists like Ravish Kumar, youth leaders like Kanhaiyya Kumar, opposition politicians like state chief ministers MK Stalin, Ashok Gehlot and Hemant Soren together suggest that Modi and the BJP’s hold on the electoral process may prove to be hard to retain in the 2024 elections.
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.
A touch of glamour
The second is a less-noticed factor. It is the thirst for a touch of glamor 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.
Modi is something else. His designer glasses, his neo-Indian fashion sense, his 56-inch chest, his bear hugs, his appearance of being a man of the people, his role as the beacon of democracy in a largely autocratic Asia, his capacity to make a mythic Hindu history the fuel for a full-on digital democracy, all stand out in a world of dull world leaders. Modi’s global popularity goes far beyond big business, foreign policy and defense deals.
The Modi craze is a little bit like K-pop and other cultural products from South Korea. The Korean culture industries figured out a formula to add a Korean flavor to non-Korean musical, cinematic, fashion, design and celebrity cultures, especially from the United States, but also with calculated appeals to Japan, China, Mexico, South America and elsewhere.
Modi is the best example of what we might call I-Pop (India-Pop). India has not quite hit the formula for I-Pop domination through its official music, film and TV products, though stars like Shah Rukh Khan and AR Rahman and the latest wave of mofussil-noir Netflix series have had some measure of success. But none of them matches Modi’s formula for I-pop, which blends “sabka vikas” with Ralph Lauren accessories. Modi has done in a few years what companies like FabIndia could not do in 50.
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. I-pop may not be familiar =in the Indian electoral scene, but it might be an X-factor for Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party which supplements the usual combinations of money, power and patronage politics that define voting outcomes in India.
Arjun Appadurai is Emeritus Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. He lives in Berlin.