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West not about to abandon India, despite communal tensions

Underlying story is one of remarkable political and social stability

| India
A demolished shop in the area that saw communal violence, pictured on April 20 in New Delhi's northwest Jahangirpuri neighborhood: Hindu nationalists have intensified their attacks on India's Muslim minority.   © AP

Rupa Subramanya is a researcher and commentator. She is a distinguished fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and the co-author of "Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India."

Communal violence has erupted in several Indian states in recent weeks as Hindus and Muslims clashed during religious processions.

In one working-class area of Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) moved to demolish Muslim-owned shops in what was widely seen as punishment for Muslims allegedly indulging in violence before the Supreme Court halted the order.

But the troubles haven't stopped a simultaneous steady flow of Western leaders to India's capital to court Modi and the BJP. The homage from abroad is a sign of how India's growing commercial strategic importance trumps the familiar rhetoric European and U.S. leaders deploy on human rights and the protection of minorities.

Sectarian violence dates back to partition in 1947, if not earlier, but observers critical of the current government claim that hate crimes against Muslims have increased under Modi, who has remained studiously silent during the recent upsurge in communal clashes.

Former Reserve Bank of India Gov. Raghuram Rajan has warned that if India is increasingly perceived as a place where minorities are not safe, an "anti-minority tag" could mean that India risks losing access to foreign markets for trade and investment and that this could hurt India's image as a reliable partner in the eyes of foreign, especially Western governments.

Quite apart from the fact that Rajan's term as RBI governor was not renewed in 2016 -- he is now a star professor at the University of Chicago -- after he criticized the alleged rise of Hindu majoritarianism in India under Modi, does his critique stand up? And, in particular, does India face any real danger of losing access to Western markets and technology due to the perceived rise of anti-Muslim bigotry? Or was that touch of wishful thinking from Rajan?

Against the backdrop of ongoing religious clashes in India, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in India on April 21 for a two-day visit intended to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries. No doubt foremost in Johnson's mind as he stepped off the plane was the fact that according to the International Monetary Fund, India will soon be of the world's fastest-growing economies, a moniker it briefly held in the last decade before losing the tag to China.

In the context of current geopolitical conflicts, which pit China and Russia against Western governments and their allies, the entirely pragmatic Johnson sees India as an important ally in the U.K.'s pivot to the Indo-Pacific in a post-Brexit world. And, more crucially, as a democratic bulwark and regional counterweight to Beijing.

Boris Johnson, left, and Narendra Modi at the Hyderabad House before their meeting in Delhi on April 22: Johnson sees India as an important ally in the U.K.'s pivot to the Indo-Pacific.   © Sipa/AP

On a visit to Modi's home state of Gujarat, Johnson observed that ties between India and the U.K. "have never been as strong or as good between us as they are now" and referred to Modi himself as his khaas dost, or special friend.

In addition to all the conspicuous bonhomie, both countries agreed to step up defense, trade and energy ties and announced a series of commercial and technology deals worth more than 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) in areas ranging from software engineering to health care.

Importantly, the deals included the signing of a new defense cooperation agreement that would see India expand its ties to the West and move away from its current heavy dependence on Russia. The two nations also reiterated the goal of signing a free trade deal by October this year.

The U.K. is not the only suitor knocking on India's door.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has signaled her intention to strengthen ties with India. The EU is currently India's third largest trading partner and plans to resume negotiations on a free trade deal, in addition to cooperation on technology much along the lines of the British announcement.

The EU's explicit intent is to give India a viable Western alternative to its heavy reliance on Russia. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has followed his predecessor Donald Trump by continuing to ratchet up ties with India and has maintained the view that sees India as a linchpin of U.S. Indo-Pacific military and strategic policy.

Elsewhere in the region, Islamic nations have been notably silent on the ongoing sectarian tensions in India directed against Muslims. One factor motivating their leaders is that they do not appreciate outside criticism of their internal policies, especially toward their own minorities, and are sensitive to the fact that India views such criticism unfavorably as well. The region is also strengthening its trade ties with India.

On May 1, the United Arab Emirates and India will see the launch of their own trade agreement. Nations in this region are also cognizant of the fact that with renewed political instability in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and throughout the subcontinent, India, the regional hegemon, simply cannot be ignored as a key partner.

The notion that India will suffer grievous external consequences if Narendra Modi turns a blind eye to ongoing sectarian tensions stoked by members of his party misses the fact that, despite small-scale flare-ups that tend to remain localized, India has shown remarkable political stability and social harmony over many decades, including during Modi's tenure.

As long as Modi manages to keep a lid on further disruptions caused by sectarian or other tensions and keeps India's economy on a steady growth path, India increasingly looks to be the only game in town for Western countries seeking a balance against China and Russia across the Asia Pacific.

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