Should the Hindu nationalists running India fear a Biden presidency? Probably less than the most ardent fans and foes of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party appear to believe, but likely more than the most sanguine observers hope. As human rights and democracy return to the heart of U.S. foreign policy, their decline in India will almost certainly no longer go unnoticed in the White House.
Since Mr. Biden’s election, much of the debate in India has centered on Prime Minister Narendra Modi allegedly overplaying his hand by embracing Donald Trump too tightly. At a campaign-style rally before 50,000 Indian-Americans in Houston last year, Mr. Modi all but endorsed the president’s re-election with the words “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar”—“This time, a Trump government.” The prime minister also hailed Mr. Trump’s resolve “to make America great again.” The Trump campaign later used Mr. Modi’s praise in an ad aimed at Indian-American voters.
At one level, Mr. Modi’s public courtship of Mr. Trump is easily explained. Like many world leaders, the Indian prime minister was merely trying to build a relationship with the world’s most powerful man.
But the Modi-Trump bromance also symbolized the awkward tango between Hindu nationalists and American populists. In a tweet last year, quickly deleted after an uproar, the then Indian ambassador in Washington posed for a photograph with Steve Bannon, and hailed him as a “‘Dharma’ warrior” who reads the Bhagavad Gita. Pro-BJP news channels in India have interviewed the likes of Mr. Bannon and former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka. In February, B.L. Santhosh, a senior figure in the BJP, responded to a Bernie Sanders tweet about anti-Muslim mob violence in India by threatening that “you compel us to play a role in Presidential elections.” (Mr. Santhosh later deleted his tweet.)
Mr. Biden, in contrast, has not flirted with Hindu nationalism, and his policy documents reflect that. The Indian media has gone after the Democrat for his campaign website’s negative comments on a recent Indian law that pointedly excludes Muslims from the right to fast-track citizenship for refugees from three Muslim-majority neighboring countries. Human-rights activists say the law undermines India’s constitutional commitment to secularism. They also fear that, combined with a proposed population register to list all citizens, the Modi government will use the law to disenfranchise India’s 200 million-strong Muslim minority. The government denies this charge, and has temporarily shelved plans for the register.