For the third consecutive year in a row, and his fourth such speech since he was elected in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the UN General Assembly, outlining his outlook on India’s place in the world. Referring to India’s large population, he said that the world grows when India grows, and transforms when India reforms, pointing to examples of the country’s progress and impact: in the area of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, particularly to counter COVID, green technology and the promise of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, and poverty alleviation. He also enumerated how many Indians had been provided water connections, banking access, insurance coverage, health services and homes, although his claim that these “all-inclusive” development goals had been achieved only in the “last seven years”, struck a politically partisan note that was out of place. Moving to regional matters, Mr. Modi pointed to the contrast between India’s actions and those of Pakistan and China in veiled references. In an apparent message to Pakistan, he linked events in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have taken control, to the problem of “regressive thinking” that leads to the use of terrorism as “a political tool”. He also called for safeguarding the maritime sphere from the “race of expansion and exclusion” and referred to the need for investigating the “origins of the coronavirus”, subjects China is sensitive about. Addressing the UN directly for its own shortcomings, the PM said that time waits for no one, urging the UN to speed up the reforms process that has been flagging for more than a decade, which would include an expanded Security Council. This, he explained, is the only way to restore the credibility of global governance institutions.
Mr. Modi’s strongest words came at the beginning of his speech, where he launched a defense of the state of Indian democracy, which has come in for some criticism over the past few years. He said India had been named the “mother of democracy” for its adherence to democratic values, symbolized by its diversity, pluralism, inclusivity, and equality, that allowed someone like him, who had once worked at his father’s tea stall, to become the country’s leader. The PM’s words appeared to be a response to comments made during his Washington visit, where U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris stressed the need to strengthen democratic processes internally. Even as he addressed the UN, protesters outside criticized his government for actions against activists, NGOs, the laws on agriculture and citizenship, and incidents of lynching and mob violence. While the PM’s commitment to India’s “great tradition of democracy” was heartening, it will be measured not by words at the world body, but by answers and actions on the ground in India.