(Bloomberg) — As the US and its allies fret over Canada’s allegation that India orchestrated the murder of a Sikh separatist leader, the scandal is providing a political boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India has gone on the offensive since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Modi’s government of orchestrating the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a priest who advocated for an independent Sikh homeland in India, and whom India branded a terrorist in 2020. While Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar this week said India was open to looking at specific evidence, he blamed Canada for not taking action against extremists.
Within India, that stance has made Modi a clear winner. Influential nationalist television hosts are attacking Canada and whipping up patriotism on nightly news programs. The opposition alliance, haunted by its own past, has effectively supported Modi, seeing little to gain in criticizing him. And the focus on terrorism is likely to stir up the base in his conservative Bharatiya Janata Party.
“For India’s Hindu nationalists who seek a more muscular approach in foreign policy, this incident is likely to galvanize greater support for PM Modi as being tough on terrorism,” said Ayesha Ray, who teaches political science at King’s College in Pennsylvania, and is a frequent commentator on Indian politics.
Modi remains overwhelmingly popular in India, and despite recent high inflation and persistent unemployment, he is expected to extend his decade in power in elections scheduled for the first half of 2024. India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has avoided using the Canadian allegations – and potential reputational damage – to criticize Modi.
Instead, it has supported the government, perhaps chastened by lessons from the last election in 2019. In the months before that vote, Indian soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in the disputed northern region of Kashmir. Modi sent fighter jets across the border into neighboring Pakistan to hit alleged terror training facilities.
That move whipped up patriotic frenzy, and the Congress party came under attack after it questioned official claims that Indian bombs actually hit those terror camps inside Pakistan. Modi swept the general elections a few months later, riding on a wave of nationalist euphoria.
“Our fight against terrorism has to be uncompromising, especially when terrorism threatens India’s sovereignty, unity and integrity,” Jairam Ramesh, a senior Congress leader and spokesperson, said to reporters last week.
The Congress party has another reason to stay quiet: it’s own uneasy history with the Sikh separatist movement.
When Sikh separatism was at its zenith in the early 1980s, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was also leader of the Congress Party, cracked down on the movement with brute force. Most notably, the army stormed Sikhism’s holiest shrine, killing hundreds, including a top separatist leader. A few months later, two of her Sikh bodyguards shot her dead, which in turn led to anti-Sikh riots.
The Congress party has also supported the Modi government on other foreign policy issues that have rankled the West, most notably in avoiding condemnation of Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.
India has emerged as a key swing state since Russia’s invasion, and its foreign policy is dominated by a determination to be seen as an independent player on the international stage. It has continued to buy oil and weapons from Russia, even as the US and its allies court Modi’s government as a key democratic Asian counterweight to an increasingly authoritarian China.
The scandal over Nijjar’s killing will help burnish Modi’s image as a force on the world stage who isn’t beholden to any country, according to Harsh Pant, author of a book on India’s foreign policy and an international relations professor at Kings College, London.
“It adds to that narrative of Mr. Modi being a strong leader, a no-nonsense leader, a leader that will also push against countries that are potential allies,” Pant said, adding that he doubts India will cooperate with any international inquiry. “I don’t think India will be budging on this issue.”