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John Oliver on Narendra Modi: ‘India seems to be sliding toward authoritarianism’

In World
June 03, 2024

On his latest Last Week Tonight, John Oliver looked into India’s mammoth election, the country’s largest and longest, in which over a billion people were eligible to vote starting in April. The country’s two-term strongman prime minister, Narendra Modi, is expected to win a third term when the announcement is made on Tuesday, after an election marred by allegations of irregularities and Muslim voter suppression by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).

“Over the course of Modi’s rise, he’s chosen to be strategically quiet about his pseudo-authoritarian, pro-Hindu vision of India,” Oliver explained. “But there’s been a noticeable shift in his rhetoric this election season” toward anti-Muslim statements, such as a recent campaign speech in which he falsely claimed that his rival party would redistribute wealth to Muslims and referred to Muslim citizens as “infiltrators”.

“That’s already ugly enough,” Oliver noted, “but it’s also coming at a time when Modi and his party have seemed increasingly comfortable threatening democratic institutions by, among other things, stifling political opposition and freedom of the press. In fact, on multiple fronts, India seems to be sliding toward authoritarianism.”

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Though he had already discussed Modi on two prior episodes, Oliver checked in on the likely three-term prime minister, who has heralded India’s infrastructure and economy and has been feted in the west – a state dinner with Joe Biden, a rally in Australia in which the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, compared him to Bruce Springsteen.

Modi has built his popularity in part on infrastructure and food distribution programs, delivering grain in bags with his face on it. “Which feels a little egotistical,” Oliver deadpanned. “It would be like if Lyndon Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 but insisted that the food stamps be rebranded as ‘Lyndon’s Lucky Yum-Yum Voucher’. Good program but I don’t know, man, maybe turn it down a notch.”

Modi especially likes to brag about the economy, which under his watch has become twice as big as it was, though Oliver noted that those numbers were suspect, and that Modi’s government had also changed the definition of poverty. “Anyone can get rid of all poverty if you just change the definition of poor people to something else,” Oliver quipped.

The economic gains have been widely unequal; by some estimates, about 1 million people now control about 80% of the country’s wealth. “And as they’ve gotten richer, much of the country has gotten poorer – even with all those bags of grain with his face on them, under Modi, the country has fallen in the Global Hunger Index, and now sits behind North Korea and war-torn Sudan,” Oliver said. “And you would think that all of this would be fertile ground for Modi’s critics to exploit, but it’s actually hard to do that in India.” Modi hasn’t held a press conference in India in 10 years of rule, and the interviews he does grant are, as Oliver put it, “the opposite of hard-hitting”. News networks critical of his government have faced police raids for tax evasion.

“Basically, if you criticize Modi, there’s a good chance that things are going to be very unpleasant for you,” Oliver said. “Meaningful criticism of Modi is scarce on TV in India.”

Oliver also surveyed the BJP’s work to suppress opposition; weeks before the election began, tax agencies froze an opposition party’s bank accounts, and the head of another opposition party was arrested. “Those could be more lucky, complete coincidences for Modi, except for the fact that over the years, multiple politicians who opposed the BJP have found themselves facing charges of fraud or financial malfeasance, only for those charges to suddenly stall or be dropped when they switch parties and join the BJP instead,” Oliver said. “In general, to put it mildly: it is good to be on Modi’s good side, and very, very bad to be on his bad side.”

That’s particularly true for the nearly 200 million Muslims in India, as Modi espouses the once fringe idea of Hindu supremacy in India, leading to an increase in anti-Muslim violence and destruction of Muslim sites and property colloquially referred to as “bulldozer justice”.

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“With anti-Muslim hate speech and violence on the rise, it is no wonder many are feeling increasingly targeted, in incredibly grim ways,” Oliver said before a clip of a police officer kicking Muslim men as they knelt in prayer; another officer was arrested for killing three Muslims on a train, and praising Modi while standing over their bodies. “It’s worth remembering: that is not a bug of Modi’s leadership, it is a feature,” Oliver noted.

What can be done? “For those of us who don’t live in India, nothing really,” Oliver answered. “Also, asking a British person ‘what should we do about India?’ is a little bit dangerous, as we’ve had quite a lot of ideas, none of which should be listened to.

“But as an international community, it seems past time to stop the uncritical, fawning praise of a man who is, to put it mildly, a deeply complicated figure,” he concluded. “So maybe we could at least stop comparing him to Bruce Springsteen.”

“And when you talk about what he’s done for India, at least acknowledge that yes, he’s responsible for giving bags of grain to people, he’s also responsible for some getting sent bulldozers,” he added. “It should be possible to acknowledge the good things that Modi has managed to do for India, while also acknowledging that many Indians live in active fear of what he seems more than happy to represent.”

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