India’s Modi is a right-wing despot — not a rock star like Springsteen

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be arriving in the United States for his first official state visit this week. While some Indian Americans will be cheering Modi on, others will be protesting the far-right leader’s appearance, hoping to draw attention to India’s dismal human rights track record.

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U.S. President Joe Biden, right, gestures with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment meeting at the G20 summit, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Joe Biden, right, gestures with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment meeting at the G20 summit, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. Biden is expected to host Modi this week for his first official state visit.

AP

Hate and fear coated with the veneer of economic prosperity sells.

So Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like his far-right contemporaries and fascists from the past, has the ability to draw large, adoring crowds in his own country and from the diaspora overseas. That includes the United States, where he will be flying in this week for his first official state visit.

President Joe Biden and some other Western leaders may have serious concerns about India’s belligerence against its religious minorities, particularly Muslims, oppressed castes, dissidents, journalists and other marginalized groups.

But the politicians have found themselves playing along, publicly sidestepping Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s horrific human rights record for the sake of bolstering a strategic relationship with India, in hopes of countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific and possibly Russia’s aggression.

“I should take your autograph,” Biden reportedly joked to Modi at a summit in Japan last month. Biden went on to tell the Hindu nationalist that the White House has been inundated with invitation requests for his upcoming stop in Washington, D.C., according to the Indian press.

“You are too popular,” Biden apparently gushed, as if he were a nerd talking to the coolest kid in the high school cafeteria, not the despot who was once banned from the U.S. for his alleged complicity in the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots.

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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also piled on with the flattery recently, likening Modi’s stage presence to rocker Bruce Springsteen’s. That’s an insult to the Boss, who has spoken out against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and wrote a song that features qawwali, devotional music deeply rooted in Islam.

If anything, Modi has more in common with the bombastic and bigoted “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent, who has compared Muslims to Dalmatians that bite.

When asked by Reuters in 2013 about the massacre in Gujarat, Modi, then chief minister of the western Indian state, also pulled out a dog analogy of his own. Modi didn’t express much remorse about the violence that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. But he did say he was about as sad as he would be if someone drove over a puppy.

Modi, long suspected of failing to stop the bloodshed in Gujarat, was unable to set foot in the U.S. for nearly a decade under a little-known law that bars foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

But since he was elected prime minister in 2014, Modi has been allowed to slither back in to rile up support from Indian Americans who share his views of Hindu supremacy, or are at least willing to ignore it.

Modi advocates in the U.S. consistently appropriate the language of social justice in an attempt to discredit other Americans of Indian descent from all backgrounds and faiths who are trying to raise awareness about the deteriorating conditions in the country they or their parents once called home.

This weekend, Modi fans, giddy over his state visit, are holding “unity” marches in several major cities, including Chicago. Unbeknownst to most Americans, this unimaginative bunch is shamelessly stealing a page from the playbook of Indian opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, who walked over 2,000 miles across India to unite his fellow citizens against divisiveness spread by Modi’s government.

India’s opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, center right, and his sister and party leader Priyanka Vadra, center left, wave as they walk with their supporters during a five-month-long “Unite India March,” in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Jan. 29, 2023.

India’s opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, center right, and his sister and party leader Priyanka Vadra, center left, wave as they walk with their supporters during a five-month-long “Unite India March,” in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Jan. 29, 2023.

AP

Gandhi, who just finished a speaking tour in the U.S., was sentenced to two years in prison and booted from Parliament a few months after he completed the Bharat Jodo Yatra — Unite India March — earlier this year.

The offense? Pondering aloud, in a 2019 rally, why “all thieves” have Modi as a surname.

Modi may have stolen the hearts of some Indians, but they don’t represent the entire 1.4 billion-plus population. Similarly, many of us Indian Americans won’t feel seen when Modi is cheered on as Biden rolls out the red carpet.

Before Modi’s arrival in D.C., Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will be screening the damning two-part BBC documentary that was blocked in India for raising questions about his culpability in Gujarat.

Protesters are also expected to flock to the capital and other parts of the country, to remind lawmakers and fellow Americans the carnage in Gujarat was just a gory trailer to the horror show that has since taken center stage in Modi’s India.

“I don’t think Modi’s foreign visits affect Muslims in India, except that some of us cringe at the spectacle,” a journalist from India told me. “... the struggles remain the same.”

The global lovefests have also left many of us wondering if Modi will ever be held accountable, leaving future generations to ask, once again, why so many from the international community stood by, watched and did nothing.

Rummana Hussain is a columnist and member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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