Seated in the domed, red sandstone government building unveiled by the British Raj less than two decades before India threw off imperial rule, S. Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, needs no reminder of how the tides of history sweep away antiquated systems to usher in the new.
Such, he believes, is today’s transformative moment. A “world order which is still very, very deeply Western,” as he put it in an interview, is being hurried out of existence by the impact of the war in Ukraine, to be replaced by a world of “multi-alignment” where countries will choose their own “particular policies and preferences and interests.”
Certainly, that is what India has done since the war in Ukraine began on Feb. 24. It has rejected American and European pressure at the United Nations to condemn the Russian invasion, turned Moscow into its largest oil supplier and dismissed the perceived hypocrisy of the West. Far from apologetic, its tone has been unabashed and its self-interest broadly naked.
“I would still like to see a more rules-based world,” Mr. Jaishankar said. “But when people start pressing you in the name of a rules-based order to give up, to compromise on what are very deep interests, at that stage I’m afraid it’s important to contest that and, if necessary, to call it out.”
In other words, with its almost 1.4 billion inhabitants, soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous country, India has a need for cheap Russian oil to sustain its 7 percent annual growth and lift millions out of poverty. That need is nonnegotiable. India gobbles up all the Russian oil it requires, even some extra for export. For Mr. Jaishankar, time is up on the mind-set that “Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s,” as he put it in June.
The Ukraine war, which has provoked moral outrage in the West over Russian atrocities, has caused a different anger elsewhere, one focused on a skewed and outdated global distribution of power. As Western sanctions against Russia have driven up energy, food and fertilizer costs, causing acute economic difficulties in poorer countries, resentment of the United States and Europe has stirred in Asia and Africa.
Carrying a gas canister in the Old City of Delhi. India gobbles up all the Russian oil it requires, and even some extra for export.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
Grinding trench warfare on European soil seems the distant affair of others. Its economic cost feels immediate and palpable.
“Since February, Europe has imported six times the fossil fuel energy from Russia that India has done,” Mr. Jaishankar said. “So if a $60,000-per-capita society feels it needs to look after itself, and I accept that as legitimate, they should not expect a $2,000-per-capita society to take a hit.”
Here comes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, pursuing its own interests with a new assertiveness, throwing off any sense of inferiority and rejecting unalloyed alignment with the West. But which India will strut the 21st-century global stage, and how will its influence be felt?
The country is at a crossroads, poised between the vibrant plurality of its democracy since independence in 1947 and a turn toward illiberalism under Mr. Modi. His “Hindu Renaissance” has threatened some of the core pillars of India’s democracy: equal treatment of all citizens, the right to dissent, the independence of courts and the media.
Democracy and debate are still vigorous — Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party lost a municipal election in Delhi this month — and the prime minister’s popularity strong. For many, India is just too vast and various ever to succumb to some unitary nationalist diktat.
The postwar order had no place for India at the top table. But now, at a moment when Russia’s military aggression under President Vladimir V. Putin has provided a vivid illustration of how a world of strongmen and imperial rivalry would look, India may have the power to tilt the balance toward an order dominated by democratic pluralism or by repressive leaders.
Which way Mr. Modi’s form of nationalism will lean remains to be seen. It has given many Indians a new pride and bolstered the country’s international stature, even as it has weakened the country’s pluralist and secularist model.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself a mixture of East and West through education and upbringing, described the country as “some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed” without any of those layers being effaced.
He was convinced that a secular India had to accommodate all the diversity that repeated invasion had bequeathed. Not least, that meant conciliation with the country’s large Muslim minority, now about 200 million people.
Today, however, Mr. Nehru is generally reviled by Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. There are no Muslims in Mr. Modi’s cabinet. Hindu mob attacks on Muslims have been met with silence by the prime minister.
“Hatred has penetrated into society at a level that is absolutely terrifying,” the acclaimed Indian novelist Arundhati Roy said.
That may be, but for now, Mr. Modi’s India seems to brim with confidence.
The Ukraine war, compounding the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, has fueled the country’s ascent. Together they have pushed corporations to make global supply chains less risky by diversifying toward an open India and away from China’s surveillance state. They have accentuated global economic turbulence from which India is relatively insulated by its huge domestic market.
Those factors have contributed to buoyant projections that India, now No. 5, will be the world’s third-largest economy by 2030, behind only the United States and China.
On a recent visit to India, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that the United States wanted to “diversify away from countries that present geopolitical and security risks to our supply chain,” singling out India as among “trusted trading partners.”
Nonetheless, India is in no mood to cut ties with Mr. Putin’s Russia, which supported the country with weapons over decades of nonalignment, while the United States cosseted India’s archenemy, Pakistan. Even in a country starkly fractured over Mr. Modi’s policies, this approach has had near universal backing.
“For many years, the United States did not stand by us, but Moscow has,” Amitabh Kant, who is responsible for India’s presidency of the Group of 20 that began this month, said in an interview. New Delhi has enough rivals, he said: “Try, on top of China and Pakistan, putting Russia against you!”
Mr. Modi’s India will not do that in an emergent world characterized by Mr. Jaishankar as “more fragmented, more tense, more on the edge and more under stress” as the war in Ukraine festers.
“Paradoxically, the war in Ukraine has diminished trust in Western powers and concentrated people’s minds on how to hedge bets,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent Indian political theorist. “India feels it has the United States figured out: Yes, you will be upset but you’re in no position to do anything about it.”
That has proved a good bet up to now. “The age of India’s significant global stature has just begun,” said Preeti Dawra, the Indian-born director of global marketing at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Communion and division
Arriving in Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city, in 1896, Mark Twain remarked on the “bewildering and beautiful confusion of stone platforms, temples, stair-flights, rich and stately palaces” rising on the bluff above the Ganges, the river of life.
Mr. Modi, 72, who adopted the city as his political constituency in 2014 when he embarked on his campaign to lead India, saying he had been “called by the mother Ganges,” has cut a pinkish sandstone gash through this sacred jumble of devotion.
Known as “the corridor” and opened a year ago, the project connects the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, to the riverfront a quarter-mile away.
The broad and almost eerily spotless pedestrian expanse, with its museum and other tourist facilities, links the city’s most revered temple to the river where Hindus wash away their sins. It is quintessential Modi.
Cut through a labyrinth of more than 300 homes that were destroyed to make way for it, the passage intertwines the prime minister’s political life with the deepest of Hindu traditions. At the same time, it proclaims his readiness to fast-forward India through bold initiatives that break with chaos and decay. Mr. Modi, a Hindu nationalist and tech enthusiast, is a disrupter.
A self-made man from a humble background in the western state of Gujarat, and from a low status in India’s caste system, or social hierarchy, Mr. Modi has come to embody an aspirational India.
Through what Srinath Raghavan, a historian, called “an incorruptible aura and a genius at orchestrating public narratives,” he appears to have imbued India with the confidence to forge the singular path so evident over the 10 months since Russian went to war.
“Modi’s social mobility is in some ways the promise of India today,” Mr. Raghavan said in an interview.
That Modi-inspired promise , as invigorating to the traditionally lower castes of Hindu society as they are troubling to the Brahmins who long ran India, have come at a price.
Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a Hindu religious leader in Varanasi and an engineering professor, said that the corridor had been a “blunder” that had destroyed 142 old shrines, an example of the bulldozing style Mr. Modi favors.
“We have always been a unique family in Varanasi, Muslims and Christians and Hindus who sit down and work things out, but Mr. Modi chooses to create tensions to get elected,” Mr. Mishra said. “If he is trying to establish a Hindu nation, that is very dangerous.”
Every morning, Mr. Mishra bathes in the Ganges. He heads a foundation that monitors the river and showed me a chart illustrating that the level of fecal matter in it is still dangerously high. So why does he do it? He smiled. “The Ganges is the medium of our life.”
One recent evening, I watched the Hindu prayer ceremony on the riverfront from a small boat. Perhaps two thousand people had gathered. Candles flickered. Chants rose. Along the great crescent sweep of the river, smoke billowed from the pyres that burn night and day. For a Hindu to die and be cremated in Varanasi is to be assured of transcendence and liberation.
A distracting electronic screen flashed behind the ceremony. On it, Mr. Modi’s bearded face appeared at regular intervals, promoting the Indian presidency of the Group of 20 largest global economies, an organization that calls itself the “premier forum for international economic cooperation.”
Mr. Modi, as this elaborate choreography of the spiritual and the political suggested, wants to turn India’s presidency of the G20 in 2023 into a premier platform for his bid for re-election, to a third term, in 2024.
“Big responsibility, bigger ambitions,” proclaimed one slogan on the screen. G20-related meetings are planned in every Indian state over the next year, including one in Varanasi in August.
India wants its presidency of the group to have the world as “one family” and the need for “sustainable growth” as its core themes. It wants to push the transformation of developing countries through what Mr. Kant, the organizer, called “technological leapfrogging.” India, with its near universal connectivity, sees itself as an example.
About 1.3 billion Indians now have a digital identity. Access to all banking activities online, through digital bank accounts, has become commonplace during Mr. Modi’s eight years in power. They were once the preserve of the middle class. Poorer Indians have been empowered.
“Nobody wants the current world order,” Mr. Kant said. “There are still two billion people in the world with no bank account.” India will advocate on behalf of poorer nations. But the issue with Mr. Modi’s “one family” theme is that, just up the road from the riverside prayers, his divisiveness is evident.
Secular ideals, dented
It is not easy to get into the complex, at the top of Mr. Modi’s new corridor, where the 17th-century white-domed Gyanvapi Mosque abuts the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Intense security checks take a long time to negotiate because this is an epicenter of the inflamed Hindu-Muslim tension in India.
Armed guards are everywhere. They stand beside the mosque, which is encased behind a 20-foot metal fence topped with coils of razor wire. They patrol the Hindu crowds, who line up in saffron-color robes beside the temple to make their offerings of milk, sometimes mixed with honey, to the simple stone lingam that is the symbol of Shiva.
The only mammals that cross easily from the Hindu to Muslim worlds, as if to mock the stubborn divisions of humankind, are the lithe gray monkeys that scamper over barriers from shikhara to minaret.
A flurry of legal cases now centers on the mosque. A court survey this year claimed to have uncovered an ancient lingam on the premises of the mosque, so establishing, at least for hard-line Hindus, that they should be allowed to pray there. Large Muslim prayer gatherings have been banned.
In the ascendant Hindu narrative that Mr. Modi has done nothing to discourage, India belongs in the first place to its Hindu majority. The Muslim interlopers of the Mughal Empire and other periods of conquest take second place. Mosque must yield to temple if it can be demonstrated that a temple predated it.
If Mr. Putin has chosen to portray Ukraine as a birthplace of the Russian world inseparable from the motherland and embraced the Orthodox Church as a bastion of his power, Mr. Modi has chosen Varanasi as a core vehicle of his assertion of India as essentially a Hindu nation. Of course, the Indian leader did so in the interest of power consolidation, not conquest.
Three decades ago, the razing by a Hindu mob of a 16th-century mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, which Hindus believe is the birthplace of the god Ram, led to the death of 2,000 people and propelled the rise of Mr. Modi’s party.
A temple is now being built there. Mr. Modi, who presided over the groundbreaking in 2020, has called it “the modern symbol of our traditions.”
Faced by such moves, Ms. Roy, the novelist, voiced a common concern. “You know, the Varanasi sari, worn by Hindus, woven by Muslims, was a symbol of everything that was so interwoven and is now being ripped apart,” she said. “A threat of violence hangs over the city.”
I found Syed Mohammed Yaseen, a leader of the Varanasi Muslim community, which makes up close to a third of the city’s population of roughly 1.2 million, at his timber store. “The situation is not good,” Mr. Yaseen, 75, said. “We are dealing with 18 lawsuits relating to the old mosque. The Hindus want to demolish it indirectly by starting their own worship there.” Increasingly, he said, Muslims felt like second-class citizens.
“Every day, we are feeling all kinds of attacks, and our identity is being diminished,” he said. “India’s secular character is being dented. It still exists in our Constitution, but in practice, it is dented, and the government is silent.”
This denting has taken several forms under Mr. Modi. Shashi Tharoor, a leading member of the opposition Congress Party that ruled India for most of the time since independence, suggested to me that “institutionalized bigotry” had taken hold.
A number of lynchings and demolitions of Muslim homes, the imprisonment of Muslim and other journalists critical of Mr. Modi, and the emasculation of independent courts have fanned fears of what Mr. Raghavan, the historian, called “a truly discriminatory regime, with its risk of radicalization.”
As I spoke to Mr. Yaseen, I noticed a man with an automatic rifle seated a few yards to his left. Clearly a Hindu, with a bindi in the middle of his forehead, he took some interest in the conversation.
Who, I asked, is this man with a rifle?
“He is my guard, appointed a couple of months ago by the district administration to protect me, given the tension over the mosque,” Mr. Yaseen said.
The guard was a police officer named Anurag Mishra. I asked him how he felt about his job. “I am standing here to protect a fellow human being,” he said. “My religion does not really matter. Nor does his. My superiors told me to do the job.”
Mr. Yaseen said that he was happy to have a Hindu protecting him, even if “I trust in God, not in the guard.”
That one Indian citizen protects another — a Hindu police officer with a rifle safeguarding a Muslim community leader from potential Hindu attack — was at once reassuring, in that it suggested secular, democratic, pluralistic India would not go quietly; and alarming, in that it was necessary at all.
A delicate balance
At the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last month, Indian diplomacy played an important role in finding compromise language after several Western countries had pressed for harsh criticism of Russia over Ukraine or even for Moscow’s ouster from the forum. The phrase, “Today’s era must not be of war,” in the leaders’ declaration, and the reference to “diplomacy and dialogue,” were a reprise of Mr. Modi’s words to Mr. Putin in September.
Could India, with its ties to Russia, mediate a cease-fire in Ukraine, or even a peace settlement? Mr. Jaishankar, the foreign minister, was skeptical. “The parties involved have to reach a certain situation and a certain mind-set,” he said.
And when will the war end? “I wouldn’t even hazard an opinion,” he said.
Still, India wants to be a bridge power in the world birthed by the pandemic and by the war in Ukraine.
It believes that the interconnectedness of today’s world outweighs the pull of fragmentation and makes a nonsense of talk of a renewed Cold War. If a period of disorder seems inevitable as Western power declines, it will most likely be tempered by economic interdependence, the Indian argument goes.
With inequality worsening, food security worsening, energy security worsening, and climate change accelerating, more countries are asking what answers the post-1945 Western-dominated order can provide. India, it seems, believes it can be a broker, bridging East-West and North-South divisions.
“I would argue that generally in the history of India, India has had a much more peaceful, productive relationship with the world than, for example, Europe has had,” Mr. Jaishankar said. “Europe has been very expansionist, which is why we had the period of imperialism and colonialism. But in India, despite being subjected to colonialism for two centuries, there’s no animus against the world, no anger. It is a very open society.”
It is also situated between two hostile powers, Pakistan and China.
In December, there was another skirmish at the 2,100-mile disputed Chinese-Indian border. Nobody was killed, unlike in 2020, when at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers died. But tensions remain high. “The relationship is very fraught,” Mr. Jaishankar said.
Escalation at the border is possible at any moment, but it appears unlikely that India can count on Russia, given Moscow’s growing economic and military dependence on China. That makes India’s strategic relationship with the West critical.
In the light of the war in Ukraine, however, each party is adjusting to the fact that the other will pick and choose its principles.
“Ukraine is certainly not seen here as something with a clear moral tale to tell,” Ms. Roy, the novelist, said. “When brown or Black people get bombed or shocked-and-awed, it does not matter, but with white people it is supposed to be different.”
India is in a delicate position. In the face of American criticism, the country chose to take part this year in Russian military exercises that included units from China. At the same time, India is part of a four-nation coalition known as the Quad that includes the United States, Japan and Australia and works for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
This is Indian multi-alignment at work. The Ukraine war has only reinforced New Delhi’s commitment to this course. Washington has worked hard over many years to make India Asia’s democratic counterbalance to President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian China. But the world, as seen from India, is too complex for such binary options.
If the Biden administration has been unhappy with India’s business-as-usual approach to Mr. Putin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has also been accepting of it — American realpolitik, as China rises, demands that Mr. Modi not be alienated.
At the end of my stay, I traveled down to Chennai on the southeastern coast.
The atmosphere is softer there. The economy is booming. The electronics manufacturer Foxconn is rapidly expanding production capacity for Apple devices, building a hostel for 60,000 workers on a 20-acre site near the city.
“The great mass of Indians are awakening to the fact that they don’t need the ideology of the West and that we can set our own path — and Modi deserves credit for that,” Venky Naik, a retired businessman, said.
I went to a concert where a musician played haunting songs and spoke of “renewing your auspiciousness every day.” There I ran into Mukund Padmanabhan, a former editor of The Hindu newspaper and now a professor of public practice at the newly established Krea University, north of Chennai.
“I do not believe Modi can marshal Hinduism into a monolithic nationalist force,” he said. “There are thousands of Gods, and you don’t have to believe in any of them. There is no single or unique way.”
He gestured toward the mixed crowd of Hindus and Muslims at the concert. “People don’t like to talk about the project of Gandhi and Nehru, which was to bring everyone along and go forward, but it happened, and it is part of our truth, part of the indelible Indian palimpsest.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.