Charismatic to Communal: TIME’s Changed Take on PM Modi Over Time

As PM Modi features in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’, the description penned is anything but praise.

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Video Editor: Sandeep Suman

Prime Minister Narendra Modi featuring in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’ list was one of the top headlines of Wednesday, 23 September.

As congratulations and praises poured in for PM Modi, who was hailed as one of the ‘greatest world leaders’ by many on social media, what got underreported were the scathing comments on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a veiled attack on India’s government in the description that followed below a ‘nearly-heroic’ image of PM Modi.

Penned by TIME editor Karl Vick, the description suggested that PM Modi’s regime has brought India’s cultural harmony and stability under doubt.

Here’s the description:


The key to democracy is not, in fact, free elections. Those only tell who got the most votes. More important is the rights of those who did not vote for the winner. India has been the world’s largest democracy for more than seven decades. Its population of 1.3 billion includes Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and other religious sects. All have abided in India, which the Dalai Lama (who has spent most of his life in refuge there) has lauded as “an example of harmony and stability.”

Narendra Modi has brought all that into doubt. Though almost all of India’s Prime Ministers have come from the nearly 80% of the population that is Hindu, only Modi has governed as if no one else matters. First elected on a populist promise of empowerment, his Hindu-­nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rejected not only elitism but also pluralism, specifically targeting India’s Muslims. The crucible of the pandemic became a pretense for stifling dissent. And the world’s most vibrant democracy fell deeper into shadow.

As PM Modi features in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’, the description penned is anything but praise.

However, compared to PM Modi’s fourth appearance on the list this year, TIME magazine’s take on Modi has not been so critical the previous three times when it was penned by different writers - Fareed Zakaria (2014), Barack Obama (2015) and Pankaj Mishra (2017).

If all four descriptions are read one after the other, one can notice a gradual change of tone from praises to condemnation in TIME’s outlook of PM Modi.

Here’s how PM Modi was described the previous three times when he appeared on the list:

‘Charismatic, Intense, Utterly Decisive’: Fareed Zakaria (2014)

As PM Modi features in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’, the description penned is anything but praise.

Titled “The divisive politician poised to lead the world's largest democracy,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria described Modi as a man with a reputation of “quick action” and “good governance”, while calling the then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh a man “with no political power of his own”. However, Zakaria did point out Modi’s past with an “autocratic rule and a dark Hindu-nationalist streak.”

Here’s what Zakaria penned:

“Elections are reactions, often negative reactions. That is surely the explanation for the breathtaking rise of Narendra Modi, who — if the opinion polls are accurate — is poised to become India’s next Prime Minister, and thus the world leader chosen by the largest electorate on the planet. India is currently ruled by Manmohan Singh, a mild-mannered 81-year-old technocrat with no political power of his own and a passive leadership style. Reverse every one of those traits and you have Modi, the charismatic, intense, utterly decisive head of Gujarat, one of India’s fastest-growing states.

Most Indians believe that their country has lost its way as its growth rate has been almost halved while inflation has soared. Modi has a reputation for quick action, encouraging the private sector, and good governance. He also has a reputation for autocratic rule and a dark Hindu-nationalist streak. But those concerns are waning in a country desperate for change.”


‘India’s Reformer-in-Chief’: Barack Obama (2015)

As PM Modi features in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’, the description penned is anything but praise.

In Modi’s second listing, his description was penned by the then US President, the widely admired Barack Obama.

Within a year of coming to power, Modi, who was once banned from entering the United States, was being praised - by one of America’s finest Presidents - as a man with a vision for India’s economy, digital reform and an influential voice for climate change.

Here’s what Obama wrote in 2015:

“As a boy, Narendra Modi helped his father sell tea to support their family. Today, he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and his life story—from poverty to Prime Minister—reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise.

Determined to help more Indians follow in his path, he’s laid out an ambitious vision to reduce extreme poverty, improve education, empower women and girls and unleash India’s true economic potential while confronting climate change. Like India, he transcends the ancient and the modern—a devotee of yoga who connects with Indian citizens on Twitter and imagines a “digital India.”

When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.”


‘Scapegoating Secular Intellectuals and Muslims’: Pankaj Mishra (2017)

As PM Modi features in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’, the description penned is anything but praise.

In his third listing in 2017, three years after taking over as the prime minister, Pankaj Mishra, the author of ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’ penned Modi’s description for TIME pointing out his failed vision for India’s economic, geopolitical and cultural supremacy and how his “extended family of Hindu nationalists took to scapegoating secular and liberal intellectuals and Muslims.”

Here’s what Mishra wrote in 2017:

“In May 2014, long before Donald Trump seemed conceivable as a US President, Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy. Once barred from the US for his suspected complicity in anti-Muslim violence, and politically ostracized at home as well, this Hindu nationalist used Twitter to bypass traditional media and speak directly to masses feeling left or pushed behind by globalization, and he promised to make India great again by rooting out self-serving elites.

Nearly three years later, his vision of India's economic, geopolitical and cultural supremacy is far from being realized, and his extended family of Hindu nationalists have taken to scapegoating secular and liberal intellectuals as well as poor Muslims.

Yet Modi's aura remains undimmed. He is a maestro of the art of political seduction, playing on the existential fears and cultural insecurities of people facing downward or blocked mobility. In March, he won elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most politically significant state, by a landslide—confirmation that elected strongmen are the chief beneficiaries of a global revolt against elites.”


Shaheen Bagh: The Irony of the Matter

As PM Modi features in TIME’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’, the description penned is anything but praise.
Bilkis became the face of Shaheen Bagh during the anti CAA protests.
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Come 2020, as Modi features for the fourth time on the list as world’s most influential, there’s hardly a word that stands testimony to Modi’s ‘good governance’. Karl Vick calls out Modi and the BJP as the ones for whom nobody but Hindus matter, who rejected pluralism, who specifically targeted Muslims and who used the pandemic as a pretense for stifling dissent.

And as Vick points out ‘stifling dissent’, the same list features Bilkis, an 82-year-old Muslim woman from Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, who became the face of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in the national capital earlier this year.

The protest site of Shaheen Bagh, where women and children peacefully demonstrated against the Modi government for the highly controversial and unarguably discriminatory CAA, was used by the BJP as a poll plank for Delhi elections with terms like ‘anti-nationals,’ ‘disguised terrorists,’ and ‘dividers of India’ being commonly used by the members of the ruling party.

Yet, Bilkis features in the list alongside Modi as one of world’s most influential people. Rana Ayyub in her description wrote: “Bilkis gave hope and strength to activists and student leaders who were being thrown behind bars for standing up for the unpopular truth in a democracy that was sliding into authoritarianism, and inspired peaceful copycat protests across the country.”

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