On March 9, Anthony Albanese attended the biggest political rally of his career. Riding a kitschy, cricket-themed parade float, he took a lap around Narendra Modi Stadium in the Indian state of Gujarat, waving to a crowd of more than 50,000 cheering fans.
They weren’t cheering for him. They were cheering for the man standing next to him: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
There aren’t many serving prime ministers who are vain enough let stadiums be named after them. To be fair to Mr. Modi, the honor was technically bestowed in recognition of his prior service as state premier and former president of the Gujarat Cricket Association. But still.
In India, cricket is politics, and the Gujarat Cricket Association had been a Congress Party bastion until 2009, when Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ousted Congress from the club. Five years later, they ousted Congress from the national government in Delhi. Mr. Modi gave up cricket to become Prime Minister of India.
Now nine years into his government, Mr. Modi enjoys a 72 per cent approval rating, putting him in a strong position for next year’s parliamentary elections. Some might say: too strong. His leading critic, the Congress Party’s de facto leader Rahul Gandhi, was recently ejected from parliament and barred from contesting the 2024 elections. Mr. Gandhi’s disqualification has nothing (and everything) to do with Mr. Modi. He was found guilty of ‘criminal defamation’ of the entire Modi caste for a 2019 campaign speech in which he asked:
“Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi [a businessman accused of fraud and embezzlement], Lalit Modi [another businessman accused of fraud and embezzlement], Narendra Modi [the prime minister]. And if we search a bit more, many more such Modis will come out.”
What’s in a name? In India, ejection from parliament and two years in jail. To be clear: Mr. Gandhi’s sentence was stayed, he is not in prison, and he is likely to receive a reduced penalty on appeal. But his immediate ejection from parliament was mandated by the Indian Constitution, backed up by a Supreme Court ruling. Due process is due process, even for a Gandhi.
The issue has raised international concerns about the health of Indian democracy. Rahul Gandhi, though no relation to the Mahatma, is the child, grandchild, and great-grandchild of prime ministers. But Gandhi himself holds no official party position. He was, officially speaking, just an ordinary MP.
Of course, everyone knows that Rahul Gandhi was no ordinary MP, but in a real democracy, political royalty must play by the same rules as the hoi polloi. And India is a real democracy.
Not that you’d know it if you listened to the ‘experts’. Activists academics will tell you that Modi’s India is a tyrannical fascist dictatorship. Check the facts, and you’ll find that India is the freest country this side of Poland—and the freest in the world with anything like its GDP per capita of just $2600.
The crown jewel of Indian freedom is its free press. India has 370 daily newspapers with an average daily circulation of 100,000 or higher, many of which openly condemned the Gandhi verdict. You have to wonder what would happen to Hong Kong or Russian publishers who printed claims that their countries’ leaders were dictators, tyrants, or fascists. Major Indian newspapers have printed all three. Yet Reporters without Borders rates India 150th out of 180 countries for press freedom, warning that that India is “one of the world’s most dangerous countries” for journalists. More journalists are killed in India than in almost any other country in the world outside China.
Careful statisticians might note that India has more people with black hair than any country outside China. What about the rate of journalist deaths in India? At 2.5 per billion population per year, it is much lower than in the rest of the world (10.7), or even the United States (3.7). In fact, the murder rate of Indian journalists is just one-quarter that for the population as a whole—and India’s murder rate is only slightly higher than New Zealand’s. Reporting is one of the safest professions in a relatively safe country.
When Narendra Modi visits Sydney today (Tuesday, May 23) he’ll be greeted at Olympic Park by an estimated 20,000 cheering fans. If Australian journalists are on the ball, they’ll cover the country’s biggest political rally of 2024.
If they dare.
According to Reporters without Borders, “press freedom is fragile in this island-continent of 26 million people”. That is, in Australia. It might be safer to send a reporter to India.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the executive director of the Indian Century Roundtable