Narendra Modi: ‘Our nation is on the cusp of a take-off’

Narendra Modi’s official residence in New Delhi is on what used to be called Race Course Road. In 2016, it changed to Lok Kalyan Marg or “People’s Welfare Street”, a name more in keeping for a twice-elected leader with populist leanings and a flair for discarding the trappings of India’s colonial past.

Past a cordon of airport-style security, the recently renovated complex (called “Seven LKM” by his staff) has parading peacocks and inner courtyards with ornate flower displays. Inside, one of the meeting rooms boasts maps of the world painted on ceiling frescoes, while the cabinet room is inscribed with lines from the preamble to India’s constitution.

It is from this quiet residence that Modi has managed India’s growing international influence but from where, in the view of many of his domestic opponents, he could also represent a risk to that constitution.

Rising from a large desk to greet visitors, Modi exudes confidence at the end of a year when India has constantly been in global focus. The country has surpassed China by population and is being touted by world leaders, business consultants and banks as an alternative investment destination for a world increasingly suspicious of Beijing.

Many Indians and global leaders alike are now preparing for what they expect to be five more years of Modi. The 73-year-old leader will be seeking a third term in office in polls due early next year, at which his party is considered the favourite. He insists that he is “very confident of victory” thanks to a record “of solid change in the common man’s life”.

“Today, the people of India have very different aspirations from the ones they had 10 years back,” says Modi, dressed in a cream kurta and rust-coloured sleeveless jacket, and immaculately barbered and manicured.

“They realise that our nation is on the cusp of a take-off,” he says. “They want this flight to be expedited, and they know the best party to ensure this is the one which brought them this far.”

The FT interviewed Modi as his Bharatiya Janata party was celebrating victories in three out of five closely fought state elections, seen as a dry run for a vote expected between April and May 2024, when India’s more than 940mn eligible voters will head to the polls.

A third-term victory would be a vindication for Modi’s legions of supporters, who say he has built India’s economy and global esteem, improved hundreds of millions of people’s lives and put the majority Hindu religion at the centre of public life.

His opposition, led by the Indian National Congress and MPs including Rahul Gandhi, have joined forces in an alliance under the acronym I.N.D.I.A., which promises to “safeguard democracy and the constitution” in the face of what they say is an attack on the secular principles of the country’s founders. During his nearly 10 years in office, critics have accused Modi’s government of cracking down on rivals, curtailing civil society and discriminating against the country’s large Muslim minority.

Modi’s opponents worry that he would use a third-term victory, especially if the BJP wins a large majority, to shred secular values irrevocably, possibly by amending the constitution to make India an explicitly Hindu republic.

The claims of democratic backsliding — which the BJP rejects — have alarmed some observers in India and overseas at a time when leaders around the world are betting heavily on the country as a geopolitical and economic partner.

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In a rare interview and additional written responses, the prime minister addressed some pointed questions, including on the status of India’s Muslim minority, friction with the US and Canada caused by alleged plots for extrajudicial killings and constitutional amendment — though he brushed aside criticisms of his government’s economic and democratic record.

To Modi and his supporters, such concerns are little more than the refrain of a chattering class out of touch with the India he is building, one that caters for a majority that they claim had long been sidelined in Indian politics.

“Our critics are entitled to their opinions and the freedom to express them. However, there is a fundamental issue with such allegations, which often appear as criticisms,” he says about concerns over the health of Indian democracy. “These claims not only insult the intelligence of the Indian people but also underestimate their deep commitment to values like diversity and democracy.”

“Any talk of amending the constitution is meaningless,” he adds.

The “most transformative steps” undertaken by his government, from a “Clean India” nationwide toilet-building campaign to bringing nearly 1bn people online through a path-breaking digital public infrastructure push, Modi says, “have been realised without amending the constitution but through public participation”.

Mix-and-match foreign policy

In August 2023, India landed its Chandrayaan-3 unmanned probe near the south pole of the Moon. Just days later, it hosted the world’s leading economies at a G20 summit meant to elevate the country’s status, and that of Modi, who peered down from posters around New Delhi as world leaders arrived.

India promoted itself as a vishwaguru, or teacher to the world, in everything from its digital inclusion drive to its campaign to promote the cultivation of climate-resilient millets.

India also hosted a “Voice of the Global South” summit and successfully championed the African Union’s admission as a permanent G20 member in September. Modi maintained close ties with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in keeping with India’s decades-old non-alignment policy, but also cemented a closer-than-ever relationship with Joe Biden during a June state visit to the US when the two countries signed a raft of agreements in areas ranging from jet engines to quantum computing.

An Indian man in his early 70s sits in a cream-coloured chair

“The world is interconnected as well as interdependent,” Modi says, outlining India’s mix-and-match foreign policy. (Another senior government official, speaking anonymously to the FT, describes India’s current position in a multipolar and multilateral world as a “sweet spot”.)

“Our foremost guiding principle in foreign affairs is our national interest,” Modi says. “This stance allows us to engage with various nations in a manner that respects mutual interests and acknowledges the complexities of contemporary geopolitics.”

When pressed on whether India’s closer relations with the US might be described as an alliance, Modi says relations are on an “upward trajectory” despite allegations made by federal prosecutors last month that an Indian government official directed a plot to assassinate a prominent American Sikh separatist leader on US soil.

A man wearing Arabic headdress and gown shakes hands with a middle-aged man in a blue suit as a man in a green-blue suit

“Regarding the best words to describe this relationship, I leave it to you,” he says. “Today, the India-US relationship is broader in engagement, deeper in understanding, warmer in friendship than ever before.”

Modi brushes aside a question about a recent relaxation of US-China tensions, saying they are “best addressed by the people and government of America and China”.

On the Israel-Hamas conflict, where his government has mostly refrained from criticising Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — a key partner with which it shares technology and a right-wing nationalist world view — Modi notes that India has supported the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, while reiterating its support for a two-state solution. India, long a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, has grown closer to Israel under Modi, the first Indian prime minister to visit the country.

“I remain in touch with the leaders in the region,” he says. “If there is anything India can do to take forward efforts towards peace, we will certainly do so,” he said.

An alternative to China

The idea of an economically emerging India is not in itself a new one for the world’s largest developing nation. But one reason the narrative has taken hold so powerfully lately is because Modi reinforces it, with his talk of India building a $5tn economy and having entered an Amrit Kaal (“age of nectar” or golden age in Sanskrit).

It is also because tensions between Washington and Beijing have prompted a search by western democracies for alternative trading and diplomatic partners to China.

In his independence day speech in August, the Indian leader vowed to make India a developed country by 2047, when it celebrates its 100th anniversary, although some economists have pointed out it will need to grow faster than its current 6-7 per cent annual rate to achieve that. While some Indians are excited about this notion, others fear a false dawn in a country that they say has often fallen short of its promise.

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Modi points out that India has progressed from being one of the “Fragile Five” (identified by a Morgan Stanley researcher in 2013, the year before he took power, describing economies overly reliant on foreign investment to finance their current account deficits) to the world’s fifth-largest economy. Infrastructure building has taken off during his premiership, and Modi’s office rattles off the numbers: a doubling of airports to 149 from 74 less than a decade ago; 905km of metro lines, from 248km a decade ago; 706 medical colleges, from 387 before he took office.

Multinational companies, including Apple and its supplier Foxconn, are building capacity in India as part of a “China plus one” diversification drive away from the world’s largest manufacturing centre. Some have gone so far as to predict that it might replicate China’s take-off decades ago, with a confluence of fast economic growth, technological advances and job creation in manufacturing, construction and other sectors that transformed the country and the lives of its people.

Modi prides himself on being a capable administrator, someone who can cut through the country’s vast bureaucracy and get things done — from large economic reform to improving welfare delivery for the hundreds of millions of Indians who depend on services such as cash transfers and free food.

A building site in Mumbai

But despite a major infrastructure push and its status as the world’s fastest-growing big economy, India is not creating enough jobs, presenting a vulnerable point for the BJP as it enters a national campaign. Although many economists say India’s data on unemployment is inadequate, according to one widely cited measure reported by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the rate is running at about 9 per cent. Modi’s opponents led by Congress hammered the BJP on the issue in recent state polls, and have also attacked the ruling party on the issue of inequality.

But the Indian leader instead cites unemployment data gathered by the Periodic Labour Force Survey, which he says points to “a consistent decline in unemployment rates”. “When evaluating different performance parameters like productivity and infrastructure expansion, it becomes evident that employment generation in India, a vast and youthful nation, has indeed accelerated,” Modi says.

Corruption, administrative hurdles, and the skills gap among youth are other obstacles to business about which companies, Indian and foreign, complain — and which some believe could prevent the country from replicating China’s manufacturing-led economic take-off.

“You have done a comparison with China, but it might be more apt to compare India with other democracies,” Modi says when asked about this.

“It’s important to recognise that India wouldn’t have achieved the status of the world’s fastest-growing economy if the issues you’ve highlighted were as pervasive as suggested,” he says. “Often, these concerns stem from perceptions, and altering perceptions sometimes takes time.”

Modi also points to the presence of Indian-origin CEOs at top companies such as Google and Microsoft as counter-evidence of a skills gap — although some analysts have pointed to the fact that so many skilled Indians go abroad as evidence that there are too few opportunities back home.

Officer cadets sit in neat rows in white uniforms

“It’s not a matter of needing to bring them back,” Modi says, when asked whether India should not be trying to lure them to return to the country of their birth. “Rather, our goal is to create such an environment in India that it naturally gets people to have a stake in India.”

He adds: “We aspire to create conditions where everyone sees value in being in India to invest and expand their operations here.”

Some Modi government officials have privately spoken about reforms such as liberalisation of labour laws should the prime minister win a third term.

“We envision a system where anyone from around the world feels at home in India, where our processes and standards are familiar and welcoming,” he says. “That is the kind of inclusive, global-standard system we aspire to build.”

A threat to democracy?

Modi’s most vocal opponents, led by Gandhi — the BJP’s chief political nemesis — have questioned whether India’s democracy will survive a third Modi term. Modi’s government has presided over a squeeze on civil society groups, which face strict curbs on their funding, and — according to watchdog groups such as Reporters without Borders — growing political and financial pressure on journalists in one of the world’s largest media scenes.

Gandhi has been among the MPs who have criticised Modi this year after a short seller’s report prompted questions about the Adani Group, the politically connected conglomerate from the prime minister’s state, Gujarat. The controversy around the Adani Group has highlighted broader concerns about the concentration of India’s economy around a few big family business groups.

Anti-Muslim hate speech has proliferated under BJP rule, the party’s critics say, and the BJP has no serving MPs or senior government ministers who are Muslim.

People count voter ballots in a crowded room

When asked what future the Muslim minority has in India, Modi points instead to the economic success of India’s Parsees, who he describes as a “religious micro-minority residing in India”.

“Despite facing persecution elsewhere in the world, they have found a safe haven in India, living happily and prospering,” Modi says, in a response that makes no direct reference to the country’s roughly 200mn Muslims. “That shows that the Indian society itself has no feeling of discrimination towards any religious minority.”

A question about the Modi government’s alleged crackdown on his critics elicits a long and hearty laugh.

“There is a whole ecosystem that is using the freedom available in our country to hurl these allegations at us every day, through editorials, TV channels, social media, videos, tweets, etc,” Modi says. “They have the right to do so. But others have an equal right to respond with facts.”

Modi points to what he says is the long history of outsiders who underestimated India.

“In 1947, when India became independent, the British who left made a lot of very dire predictions about India’s future. But we have seen that those predictions and preconceptions have all been proven false.”

Those who today similarly doubt his government, Modi adds, “will also be proven wrong”.