Narendra Modi was once known globally as the Indian politician who presided over the violent Gujarat riots. Despite being a chief minister, Modi was in 2005 denied a visa to the United States, which found him responsible for violating religious freedoms in the 2002 riots that saw more than 1,000 people killed. In the decade that followed, Modi managed to resuscitate his global image, such that he was a perceived as a business-friendly, efficient politician who was on track to lead India.

Now, nearly two decades after those riots and six years after Modi became prime minister of India, global coverage is once again bringing scrutiny to the Hindu nationalist policies of his government that have sparked countrywide protests over the last month. This week’s cover of The Economist, titled “Intolerant India: How Modi is endangering the world’s biggest democracy”, drives this home clearly.

But it is not just The Economist.

Global media across the board has drawn attention to Modi’s divisive moves in recent months. After winning re-election in 2019, Modi has used his second term to double down on his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda – most prominently by stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and passing a controversial piece of legislation that adds religious criteria to India’s citizenship laws. Many believe the moves are meant to drive home the idea that India belongs to Hindus.

While in some cases the reports were written by Indians – including opinion pieces by analysts offering their own commentary – the coverage makes it clear that those following the news about India from afar have been made aware of the controversial nature of Modi’s second term.

This has happened even as Modi has convinced his base that both his own reputation and that of India has risen tremendously over the last year.

Here are some of the pieces in the foreign press:

Israel’s Ha’aretz carried a piece in December 2019 by Khinvraj Jangid, headlined: ‘Modi’s Malignant anti-Muslim Vision for India Is Becoming Reality’:

“Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was deeply concerned with the fate of democracy in Asia. He was proud of the fact that Israel was founded, amidst regional violence, as a democracy in 1948, and believed India, founded a year earlier, offered great hope in Asia thanks to its democratic, secular and egalitarian ambitions...

Ben-Gurion’s admiration for Nehru’s vision was not dulled by the fact that even a full decade after India recognized Israel in 1950, New Delhi was still reluctant to establish diplomatic relations. But now, under the premiership of Narendra Modi, precisely the values that Ben-Gurion and many other world leaders so admired are being systematically undermined in India.” 

“India is a Hindu state now – we are second-class citizens”, reads the headline of a report from the UK’s The Times on January 10. The report begins with this harrowing anecdote:

The crowd scattered and word spread up the street in panic: “Police, police.” While protesters scrambled to flee over the rooftops of the block in old Lucknow, dozens of officers burst in below, raining blows on women and children. The Muslim families cowered from their attackers.

“Take her veil off, check if she’s a man,” one officer yelled, pointing to Salma Hussain, 29, who wept as she recalled the humiliation. The women were groped and officers commented on their breasts as they beat them.

“One man put a gun to my head,” said Tabasum Raza, 26. “He said: ‘Tell me where the men are hiding or I’ll shoot you.’”

China’s Global Times carried the perspective of an academic seeking to explain what he sees the difference between Chinese nationalism’s motivations and those of India’s Hindu nationalism:

“The rise of Hindu nationalism has broader implications for international politics. Hindu nationalism tends to be motivated by winning, which needs constant victories and reputation to nurture itself, or it will lose the driving force or even destroy development, unlike nationalism in China, which tends to be triggered by sorrowful sentiment, when the country is being invaded or bullied. 

Therefore, Hindu nationalism will not be satisfied to be only the dominant force within India. It will push the country to pursue higher international status – from permanent membership in the UN Security Council to dominance in the Indian Ocean and South Asia and eventually a major world power – to satisfy the need for victory and reputation.” 

Russia Today is a rare outlier, carrying a piece by an Indian academic defending Modi’s actions and claiming that the protests are anti-democratic.

“It is difficult to understand how India, the world’s largest representative democracy that concluded a massive electoral exercise in 2019, has turned overnight into an “autocracy.” The BJP, that forms the federal government at the Center, has suffered recent reverses in state elections to further underline the vibrancy of India’s democracy.

If liberal democracies around the world are facing a threat, it is not from populist leaders but “liberals” themselves who are unable to come to terms with reality. A little humility may help.”

It isn’t just in the West. The critical coverage of India is apparent in the neighbourhood too. One might expect such pieces from the Pakistani press – since the discourse around the current controversy has seen Modi and his government once again attempt to deflect pressure by blaming Islamabad – but in other South Asian countries also, questions are being asked about Modi’s leadership.

A piece in Bangladesh’s Daily Star brings up the likely impact it may have on the country.

“The Act clearly brought into the open how the BJP government of India views Bangladesh. Such negative depiction has been an affront for the people of Bangladesh... The rolling out of the NRC and the application of CAA are likely to have grave consequences for Bangladesh... It is time for those at the helm of the state to discard the rhetoric, take stock of these developments and collectively develop a national strategy to face the likely challenge.” 

The Annapurna Express in Nepal carried an interview of political scientist Hari Sharma, explaining what is different between the politics of India and his country:

“We did try politics based on reli­gion by introducing the threat of Christians but that did not play out well. But in India, Hindutva is propa­gated against Islam. In India religion is divisive or a fault-line, just like in the US race is a fault-line. In our country, religion is not a fault line so far. But if we learn bad things from India, it could become a fault-line.” 

Returning to the West, on Monkey Cage, a Washington Post blog, one analyst explained why it was significant that the protesters are holding up the Indian flag and the Constitution at demonstrations.

“This is why the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Registry of Citizens are so explosive. They are only the latest in a string of recently enacted BJP policies that restrict national belonging, including revoking the autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, a disputed Muslim-majority region; accompanied by an ongoing military siegerewriting textbooks to promote the BJP’s political program and ideology; and condoning violence against Muslims.

Together, these policies constitute a systematic BJP project to violently redraw the boundaries of national belonging to include only the ethnic- majority Hindus and to exclude ethnic minorities, notably Muslims. This rejects the secular, multicultural principles upon which India was founded and which are embodied in the flagthe anthem and, most explicitly, the constitution.

By invoking these symbols, the protesters in India are drawing on this historic, inclusive vision of their country.”

The Washington Post’s coverage, in fact, seems to have bothered Modi enough that when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the newspaper, announced that he was planning to invest another $1 billion into India earlier this month, a Union minister said he was not doing the country any favours. Another leader from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party explained that several comments about Bezos were indeed about The Washington Post’s coverage of India.

This brings up the other narrative that is accompanying a lot of the critical pieces written about India over the last few months. It is not just that Modi has moved forward on his Hindu nationalist agenda. This has also come at a time when India, once seen as a rising power that could challenge China in the region, has seen its economic fortunes nosedive.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, it is the combination of controversial moves and a slowing economy that is adding to the global concerns about India – enough for the International Monetary Fund to say that the country is dragging down the world economy, while another report cites India as being at “extreme risk” of civil unrest.

Here is the Journal’s Bill Spindle:

“Since [his May 2019 re-election] Mr. Modi has paused only briefly to address the economy—most notably with a big corporate tax cut after the election—as the BJP has raced to accomplish controversial initiatives long espoused by the party’s most ideological Hindu nationalist supporters... 

Each move sparked criticism and questioning from abroad and increased anxiety among some domestically, particularly Muslims and a wider group of Indians concerned the country’s democracy is turning in a religiously intolerant and majoritarian direction....

Yet even as social discontent rises, the economy’s stubborn sluggishness looms as a largely unaddressed menace that could exacerbate those problems, say many economists.”