What Would Modi’s Third Term Mean for India-China Relations?

April 17, 2024

India will hold its 18th general election on April 18, 2024, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are poised to win a third term. Similar to his first and second terms, a significant amount of historical and contemporary political and economic baggage will burden Modi’s third term and his relations with China. While his anticipated election victory would likely result in the continuation of complex India-China issues and tensions from his previous years as prime minister, Modi appears to have a stable but delicate relationship with China to manage.


Competing perspectives of Modi

The vast majority of Chinese internet users have a positive view of India’s leader, calling him ‘Immortal Modi’ or ‘Modi Laoxian’ (‘不朽的莫迪’). Based on data from the popular microblogging platform Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), which has more than 598 million active monthly users, many Chinese people also think that Modi is crucial to preserving the balance of power in the world.

Competing perspectives of Western-style liberal democracy and China’s political model commonly, though unfairly and inaccurately, portray the former as the stable foundation of a well-functioning society, whereas the latter, marked by ardent nationalism and a supreme leader, is viewed as volatile. Weibo users’ comments shed light on their perceptions of democracy as a fundamentally unstable political system beset by internal conflicts, corruption, and misrepresentation. Indeed, they frequently dismiss the concept of democracy as a whole process. Many Chinese people believe that larger nations, even ones that claim to be democratic, tend to adopt authoritarian characteristics.

Western media often express this erroneous belief when reporting on political developments in India. During Modi’s tenure, debates about the essence of Indian democracy have shifted, which is consistent with Chinese perspectives on the democratic system in general but not on India’s democratic system specifically. This lively but partisan debate, not confined to academia, centers on the purported new chapter in Indian history, where Modi’s leadership has distanced the nation from the fundamental principles of democracy, minority rights, and executive accountability.

Nitasha Kaul, a well-known Modi critic, writes for the Australian Institute of International Affairs that ‘the Modi myth proffers the idea of a paternal, ascetic, and efficient leader at the helm of a civilizational resurgence of India as a “Vishwa Guru” (world leader).’ In 2021, Jostein Jakobsen and Kenneth Bo Nielsen of The Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo added India under Modi to their list of ‘authoritarian, populist, and right-wing regimes.’ In 2023, The Guardian published an article calling Modi’s government ‘autocratic’ and ‘illiberal.’ Similarly, a Financial Times piece from the same year highlighted Modi’s alleged ‘authoritarian streak’ as a major concern for the West.

However, China’s recent mention of Modi contrasts sharply with the much-embellished portrayal of India during his tenure. On 2 January 2024, Zhang Jiadong, the director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, expressed his admiration for Modi, his economic and foreign policy, and his ‘Bharat narrative’. Zhang claimed that India has become more proactive and self-assured on a national and international level. His remarks were published by the state-run newspaper Global Times. Coming from the Chinese government, these statements might seem unconventional, but when considering India’s efforts to create a multi-aligned system in international affairs and the Western disapproval of India following the West’s unsuccessful attempts to steer Modi towards Western alignment, they have geopolitical relevance, particularly regarding China’s relationship with India under Modi.

Though he and his party greatly benefit India, Modi now poses a challenge to governments, intellectuals, and people of Western and Indian ancestry who support Congress. India has a strong governance framework, making it difficult for a single person or political party to attain widespread popularity. For the past nearly 23 years, he has served as Prime Minister of India and Gujarat State Chief Minister, owing to his and his party’s perseverance and nationalist, India-focused agenda, not because he is a despot or authoritarian. People understand how regional and global environments are degrading and changing, as well as where India should rank as a developed country on the world map. They are electing him and his party to govern India (or Bharat). Furthermore, the Supreme Court, as the pinnacle body in India’s robust judicial structure, keeps a watchful eye and is well-equipped to deal with any violations of democratic institutions by any person or entity.

The BJP/Modi government at the helm is now well-positioned to bolster India’s economic standing without yielding to any internal or regional pressures. A landslide victory in the upcoming election may allow Modi and his right-wing nationalist government to reshape India into a Hindu nation, with the goal of amending the Constitution to dilute the problematic principles of secularism and socialism while curbing illegal immigration and ethnic separatism, as well as addressing the challenges posed by rising Islamism. In countering Islamism and terrorism in India, the emphasis is on confronting the activities of a subset of extremist Sunni Muslims. This group, while not substantially contributing to the broader Indian society, is increasingly mobilizing for communal interests, becoming susceptible to the influence of a transnational Islamist agenda and global caliphate bogey. Any potential Modi-led government plan will include a comprehensive approach to addressing the dangers posed by these dynamics while also ensuring national security and social harmony. These objectives broadly align with Beijing’s policies in the context of Chinese society.

For the Complete article, See, Scott N. Romaniuk & Animesh Roul, "What Would Modi’s Third Term Mean for India-China Relations?" Geopolitical Monitor (OPINION) - April 15, 2024. 

Scott N. Romaniuk & Animesh Roul (Geopolitical Monitor, April 15, 2024)