May 23, 2024

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his power at home secured and his Hindu-first vision deeply entrenched, has set his sights in recent years on a role as a global statesman, riding India’s economic and diplomatic rise. In doing so, he has distanced himself from his party’s staple work of polarizing India’s diverse population along religious lines for its own electoral gain.

His silence provided tacit backing as vigilante groups continued to target non-Hindu minority groups and as members of his party routinely used hateful and racist language, even in Parliament, against the largest of those groups, India’s 200 million Muslims. With the pot kept boiling, Mr. Modi’s subtle dog whistles — with references to Muslim dress or burial places — could go a long way domestically while providing enough deniability to ensure that red carpets remained rolled out abroad for the man leading the world’s largest democracy.

Just what drove the prime minister to break with this calculated pattern in a fiery campaign speech on Sunday — when he referred to Muslims by name as “infiltrators” with “more children” who would get India’s wealth if his opponents took power — has been hotly debated. It could be a sign of anxiety that his standing with voters is not as firm as believed, analysts said. Or it could be just a reflexive expression of the kind of divisive religious ideology that has fueled his politics from the start.

But the brazenness made clear that Mr. Modi sees few checks on his enormous power. At home, watchdog institutions have been largely bent to the will of his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. Abroad, partners increasingly turn a blind eye to what Mr. Modi is doing in India as they embrace the country as a democratic counterweight to China.

“Modi is one of the world’s most skilled and experienced politicians,” said Daniel Markey, a senior adviser in the South Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace. “He would not have made these comments unless he believed he could get away with it.”

Mr. Modi may have been trying to demonstrate this impunity, Mr. Markey said, “to intimidate the B.J.P.’s political opponents and to show them — and their supporters — just how little they can do in response.”

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