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The September 2 issue of The Spectator featured a cartoon of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak riding an ascending rocket. Inside, the lead article—a preview of the G-20 Summit in New Delhi—was headlined “India’s Century.” The G-20 gabfest was later billed by much of the global commentariat in similar terms: This was India’s coming-out party as a twenty-first-century superpower, one that might challenge China as the Asian colossus of the future.  

For years now, I have been saying to friends that, if you’re betting long-term, bet “India” rather than “China.” I first became aware of the economic dynamism of the subcontinent some twenty years ago, when, in trying to fix everything from errors in tax forms I received to mistakes on my credit card bill to computer glitches, I found myself talking to people in India, a country that seemed to have figured out that the world, for economic purposes, had become a single time zone. Then there was the positive legacy of British rule in India: a military that stayed out of politics; a professional civil service; democratic institutions; and, above all, the rule of law, which is essential for economic growth and social order, especially in such a complex society, now the world’s most populous.

By contrast, the Leninist totalitarianism deep in the DNA of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would, I thought, eventually prove too brittle to solve serious problems (as has been the case with the outbreak of Covid, the sputtering Chinese economy, and the country’s demographic decline, itself a direct result of the draconian one-child policy the CCP brutally enforced for decades). The paranoid national security state the CCP is building, which has led to everything from the genocide of the Muslim Uyghurs to the abrogation of civil liberties in Hong Kong to ever-increasing pressures on the Catholic Church and other Christian communities, also struck me as an indicator of a regime in decline.

So, I kept saying, “Bet ‘India’ rather than ‘China.’” Now others have joined the bandwagon. But with a few exceptions, my fellow “bet India” partisans seem oblivious to a disturbing reality in twenty-first-century India, one that may eventually weaken, even threaten, the Indian renaissance. And that is the fact that India is becoming increasingly intolerant, even violently intolerant, of religious differences.

Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promotes “Hindutva,” an ideology of Hindu nationalism, which for some radicalized Indians means persecuting those of other faiths. Hundreds of Christian churches have been burned in recent months by fanatics who presumably vote BJP. The party does not actively promote these outrages, but it seems to tolerate them and is certainly not doing enough to distance itself from them. That raises grave questions about Modi’s determination to promote an “Indian model” of twenty-first-century society.

For the foreseeable future, India will remain a country in which Hindus are the overwhelming majority. But an India that cannot live religious tolerance cannot be a universal model of social stability and progress. Nor is an India in which Christians are at peril of their lives and property going to commend itself to those countries—including the United States—whose security assistance India needs to counter an aggressive China. Those projecting (and celebrating) an India pulling ahead of China in the contest for Asian leadership might press these points on Modi and the BJP, rather than just celebrating his and the party’s achievements.

It would be helpful if the Holy See would be more publicly assertive in its defense of embattled Catholic communities in India, although the continued Vatican kowtow to China does not induce much hope for a stronger line on India. The pope’s recent admonition to Chinese Catholics to be “good Christians and good citizens” was, in the abstract, unexceptionable. The problem is that, in present reality, being a “good citizen” in China means swearing allegiance to Xi Jinping Thought (including the “Sinicizing” of all religion), and that is incompatible with fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While we’re on the subject of China, let me pause and pay tribute to my friend Jimmy Lai, the world’s most prominent Catholic prisoner of conscience. As you read these musings, Jimmy has been marking his 1,000th day in solitary confinement in Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison. His wife is allowed to visit twice a month. His children haven’t seen him in three years. They all await a public word in defense of this white martyr from Rome.

And like the refugees at the beginning of that great film Casablanca, they wait. And wait. And wait . . .

George Weigel’s column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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Image by Prime Minister's Office, Government of India licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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