(Bloomberg Opinion) — As each week goes by, India’s crackdown on Kashmir deepens. Not content with cutting phone lines and the internet, detaining top political leaders and imposing a curfew which has now lasted three weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has reportedly imprisoned thousands of Kashmiris, including businessmen and students as well as human-rights activists.
This suppression of an ethnic-religious minority has met with mass acclaim in India. One has to go as far back as Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic to recall a similarly ecstatic upsurge of vengeful nationalism.
As the Economist puts it, “India’s press and television channels are jumping up and down and cheering.” Many Indian journalists have joined social media trolls in assaulting Western outlets such as the BBC and the New York Times for reporting Kashmiris’ anger and disaffection.
Near-unanimous backing from India’s media seems to have emboldened Modi’s government. Last weekend, it prevented a delegation of opposition leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, from visiting Kashmir.
Such impunity reveals just how extraordinarily complete Modi’s success as India’s pied-piper is, how irresistible his tunes. He and his followers draw additional encouragement from the fact that most foreign governments are too distracted by domestic challenges to pay attention to events in Kashmir, and that Pakistan’s strident campaign to isolate India diplomatically has failed.
Still, as the situation of Kashmiris deteriorates, India’s well-wishers should ask: Has Modi, while accumulating untrammelled power for himself and fellow Hindu nationalists, irreparably damaged India’s claims to be a rational and stable democracy?
Coverage of Kashmir in the international media has been uniformly critical of the Indian government, partly provoked by its demonstrably false assertions, echoed by India’s media, that things are “normal” in Kashmir. Front-page pictures of heavily armed soldiers on empty Kashmiri streets make clear the region is effectively under military occupation.
Modi’s version — that he is advancing economic development in Kashmir — is either not in sight or looks patently deceptive as writers, academics and journalists, often from the Kashmiri diaspora, educate global audiences about their history and fate.
It might be easy to mock these critics as irrelevant and powerless. But they emerge at a crucial time, when even many hardened observers of Indian politics and economy are questioning what kind of leader Modi is.
Outside of India, neither the prime minister’s economic data nor his boasts about destroying terrorist camps deep inside Pakistan has survived close scrutiny. Indeed, the mob lynchings of Muslims under his watch have directed fresh attention to the origins of Modi’s Hindu nationalist organization in the European fascist movements of the 1920s.
In news reports and analyses, India’s prime minister is not uncommonly grouped with such demagogic politicians as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte. Even Pakistan, long identified internationally as a rogue nation, has felt emboldened enough to denounce Modi’s government as “racist” and “fascist.”
Modi himself has suffered new damage to a reputation that he had diligently washed free of the taint of suspected complicity in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. Ascending to power in 2014, he managed to persuade many in the West that he was focused on making India’s economy grow and creating jobs rather than stoking Hindu majoritarianism. Modi’s image as an economic modernizer suffered greatly from his decision to withdraw most currency notes from circulation in 2016. Post-Kashmir, it has become even harder to maintain.
Amid bleak news about the economy, overseas investors were pulling funds out of India before Modi launched his crackdown in Kashmir. The bigotry on display in India’s public sphere might lead more of them to wonder if they should still take for granted the country’s social cohesion, and the political and economic rationality of its leaders.
In the West, India long ago lost the prestige it had enjoyed through its association with world-historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, and its moral leadership of the non-western world in the decades following independence in 1947. The more recent narrative about India — that it is a distinguished multicultural democracy and economic powerhouse — is now also up for debate. This squandering of soft power cannot but have deep consequences for an aspiring global force that is very far from matching China’s hard power.
In many ways, the repression of Kashmiris is a more egregious act of self-harm than demonetization. The longer it goes on, the greater the suspicion will grow that, having failed in his central tasks, India’s pied-piper is running blind, in danger of leading his nation to a dead-end.
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Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”
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