An undignified display: two vainglorious leaders of mid-level powers groping in front of 20,000 people. Anthony Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were clumsy with excitement as they embraced at Sydney’s Olympic Park on Tuesday, projecting unity ahead of well-publicised bilateral talks.
Modi was originally to visit Australia alongside US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, representing the other two member states of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a revived alliance that fancies itself as the guardian of liberal democracy in the “Indo-Pacific”. When Biden’s cancellation put paid to the meeting, Modi’s Sydney visit became the last stop on a grandstanding tour of Indian soft power.
As US-China tensions have sharpened, India, a historic leader of the Cold War-era non-aligned movement of underdeveloped countries, has surfaced as a prize in the West’s scramble for allies. Its population has overtaken China’s and its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Crucially, India’s strategic position, particularly its naval capacity in the Indian Ocean, is important to US designs in Asia.
Modi has something the West wants. And he knows it.
The United States is now India’s largest trading partner, the two countries’ bilateral trade in goods and services approaching US$200 billion in 2022. Last year, Biden and Modi signed the US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, a deal to deepen tech-sector ties as the US tries to isolate China in the semi-conductor sector. India’s trade with Australia has been similarly prioritised: the countries’ first free trade agreement was signed last year.
More significant are the emerging military ties. In 2021, the Indian Navy signed its first joint guidance document to cement India-Australia naval cooperation. India participated in a series of joint military exercises with the US and Australia, including Exercise Kakadu in Darwin last year, dubbed by Australian Vice Admiral Mark Hammond as “our navy’s most significant international engagement activity”. And in January, the US and Indian governments agreed to a Defence Industrial Cooperation Roadmap to enhance collaboration on weapons systems.
India has a series of border and trade disputes with China, which makes participation in the Western alliance attractive. But New Delhi is far from all-in with Washington. Russia remains India’s largest military supplier and a source of cheap oil and gas. Modi also refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. India participates not only in the Quad, but in a series of international bodies with China, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Brics forum, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Perhaps this is why Albanese has been so obsequious—India is still hedging between the West and its adversaries. Australia has repeatedly lumped India in the “liberal-democratic camp”. The India-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership is supposedly based on “mutual trust and understanding, shared values, and common interests, of democracy and rule of law”.
But one thing that no-one in the Western camp will say out loud is that Modi is not a colourful Bollywood democrat—he is a lifelong fascist. His ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party), combines partisan influence over the legal system and the police force with street-based thuggery.
“Modi’s far-right supporters and other Hindu supremacists celebrate their connections with Nazis”, Yale University professor Jason Stanley noted at a forum of the Indian American Muslim Council in February. “The RSS explicitly says, ‘We want to do to Muslims what the Nazis did to Jews’.” The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Organisation) is a fascist paramilitary group. Modi’s BJP is its political wing.
Political repression under Modi has become naked. The highest profile case is Rahul Gandhi—leader of the former governing party the Indian National Congress—being jailed for two years for “defaming” Modi at an election rally. On the streets, the growing fascist movement, brown shirted with an admixture of saffron, inflicts terror. Lynchings of Muslims and Dalits are common and are regularly pardoned by the state, which has been infiltrated by the Sangh. Writing last year at Al Jazeera, author and political activist Arundhati Roy noted:
“Today in India, we are living through the political equivalent of a scorched-earth policy. Everything—every institution that has taken years to build—is being destroyed. It is stupefying ... Within the cadre of the Hindu right there is a new, aggressive far-right displaying a palpable restlessness the Modi government is increasingly hard-pressed to control, because they are the BJP’s core support base. On social media, it is now routine to encounter open calls for the genocide of Muslims. We have reached the point of no return.”
Yet Albanese hugs, kisses and lauds the achievements of Modi. When asked by Sunrise host David Koch whether Modi was “a bit of a tyrant”, Albanese could only offer: “It’s not up to me to pass a comment on some of the internal politics in India”. Albanese has, however, been happy to let Modi spruik his brand of Hindu nationalist politics. Mass rallies, like the 20,000 in Sydney’s Olympic Park, are staples of BJP campaigning and help cement Modi’s cult figure.
The New South Wales government even allows the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a far-right outfit affiliated to the RSS, and an important element of the on-the-ground fascist thuggery underpinning Modi’s rule in India, to teach special religious education studies in public schools.
Albanese has never commented on or condemned the activity of Hindu nationalists in Australia. He has, however, under gentle prodding from Modi, repeatedly condemned graffiti on Hindu temples in Victoria, which the far-right nationalists label an overseas expression of Sikh separatism—a current bogey wielded by the BJP in its litany of scaremongering about threats to Indian “unity”.
For all the mentions of “democracy” and “human rights” peppered into the imperial propaganda surrounding Modi’s regional visit, it’s clear that Western leaders will say anything, do anything and partner with anyone to maintain US dominance of Asia. When it comes to India, what’s a bit of fascism between friends?