Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 September 2023


The West’s India Problem Isn’t Getting Any Easier

The backlash against Canada reveals a hyper-masculine new national identity, forged out of old feelings of humiliation, helplessness, and insecurity.



Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author, most recently, of “Run and Hide.”
Uncivil society.
Uncivil society. Photographer: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to make public any evidence supporting his sensational allegation that India was behind the killing of a Canadian citizen this June. But strident counter-accusations by the Indian government, and ferocious denunciations of Canada and its Western allies in India’s civil society, already point to an extremely volatile factor in geopolitics today: Narendra Modi’s India.

Only a fortnight ago, Modi, India’s prime minister, was leading barefooted Western leaders to lay wreaths at Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi’s memorial in New Delhi. At the G-20 summit, he presented India as the torchbearer of peaceful co-existence, harmony, and inclusivity — “one earth, one family, one future.”

Modi could have offered to cooperate with the Canadian government. His followers on his most loyal television news channel could have refrained from threatening to nuke Canada. Instead, India’s expensively curated image as a world guru now lies in tatters.

Perhaps, for the best. We ought to perceive India as it is: a country where Gandhi’s Hindu nationalist assassin enjoys unprecedented cult-status, suppression of critics and dissenters has become routine, and an intensely ideological regime and a significant part of the population now wish to be feared and respected internationally as practitioners of ruthless power politics.

It remains to be seen whether the West will oblige. In the meantime, it is worth remembering how Western nations initially indulged claims to impunity from another then-desired partner — Vladimir Putin’s Russia — even as Russian spies went about killing opponents at home and abroad.

Putin himself rose to prominence by promising in 1999 to “rub out” terrorists wherever they were. The crude machismo, a version of which now echoes across India, resonated powerfully among Russians, who felt deeply humiliated by the fragmentation of their once-great country, economic collapse, and subjection to the West.

It is true that, as the scholar Jade McGlynn writes in her new book, “Russia’s War,” the resentments driving “Russia’s especially aggressive form of patriotism” and “its inferiority complex towards the West” were flourishing before Putin came to power. It was Putin, however, who freely invented a glorious imperial past and fused it to Russia’s fallen present and hoped-for future.

Indeed, much deliberate if under-noticed effort has gone into bringing Russians to their current state of violent delusion, in which many of them support their leader’s criminal assault on Ukraine. With the help of popular cinema and loyal television channels, Putin rehabilitated tarnished icons of Russian patriotism such as Josef Stalin, while presenting a range of enemies to loathe, from gays to NATO.

Most importantly, by projecting military force from Russia’s borderlands to Syria and deep within Africa, Putin managed to make Russians seem to themselves vigorous actors in a globally staged drama of national vengeance and redemption.

This is why, McGlynn warns, the war in Ukraine seems so irresolvable: Its roots lie not only in Putin’s rancorous mind but also “in the Russian political and societal imagination of what their own country is and what it must be.”


In India, too, Hindu nationalists have forged a hyper-masculine new national identity out of old feelings of humiliation, helplessness, and insecurity. A range of events — the rehabilitation of Gandhi’s assassin, the absorption of a mythical Hindu past into fantastical visions of the present and future, the invention of enemies (such as the mostly toothless Sikh separatists), the glorification of spies and assassins in popular culture (see the latest Bollywood hit “Pathaan”) — have helped radicalize the political and societal imagination of what India is and must be.

Foreign-affairs analysts don’t usually track such rapid construction of a new national mind and soul. Their omission complicates an understanding, let alone resolution, of the West’s India dilemma.

For many outside the country, the Indian response to the killing in Canada has provided the first clear glimpse of a civil society that in large parts is increasingly uncivil. Moreover, as in Putin’s Russia, there is no easy panacea for such an extensive delirium caused by the pursuit of national potency and status.

One can only hope that Modi, cognizant of the need for good relations with Western nations — not to mention India’s own military and economic limitations — can control the resentments and cravings for power unleashed by his party. He has done well so far to contain the frustration caused by India’s steady loss of territory to China.

Still, vitriol deflected is not vitriol defused. No one should be in any doubt anymore about the dangers lurking in a hot-headed and emboldened Hindu nationalism.

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