Understanding Modi’s India

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


In August, India made world news by being the first nation to land near the Moon’s South Pole. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it as a historic moment for humanity and ‘the dawn of the new India’. Meanwhile, India’s digital transformation of its financial system is reported by payments systems company ACI Worldwide to be operating on a larger scale than even in the US and China. Earlier this year, UN population estimates suggested India has overtaken China as the world’s most populous country, with over 1.4 billion people.

As America’s rivalry with China heats up, the western world has warmed to India. A month before the Moon landing, President Joe Biden had rolled out the red carpet for Modi’s state visit to America. The US wants a more meaningful, closer and stronger relationship with India. The German government is discussing a possible submarine deal. French President Emmanuel Macron invited Modi to celebrate Bastille Day, calling India a strategic partner and friend. But there have also been tensions over India’s neutral stance over the war in Ukraine. Are these signs of India’s arrival on the international top table? Can India rise to this challenge?

India has a huge population, but the vast majority are still poor – the country is ranked 139th in the world for nominal GDP per capita – and faces massive inequalities. While India receives much adulation from the Western elites, its undermining of the freedom of the press and its clampdown on the judiciary have been heavily criticised. The Economist Intelligence Unit‘s Democracy Index showed India falling from 27th position in 2014 to 46th in 2022. But the White House is calling India a ‘vibrant democracy’. Which is it: a faltering democracy or a vibrant one?

India is also facing much internal disquiet within its population. Most recently, ethnic tensions have flared up between the majority Hindus and the Muslim minority just 20 miles outside of New Delhi. Ethnic strife between Hindus and Christians also continues especially in the North-east state of Manipur.

With this backdrop of domestic instability, can Modi and his BJP party retain control in the 2024 elections? What will India’s future role be on the world stage – both politically and economically?

Lord Meghnad Desai
crossbench peer; chair, Gandhi Statue Memorial Trust; emeritus professor of Economics, LSE

Dr Zareer Masani
historian, author, journalist, broadcaster

Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
director, Don’t Divide Us; author, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth

Para Mullan
former operations director, EY-Seren; fellow, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development