John Oliver calls out "uncritical fawning praise" of Indian PM Narendra Modi amid growing crackdown

Oliver went in on India's growing Hindu nationalism, censorship and Modi's expected re-election

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published June 3, 2024 12:13PM (EDT)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Photo courtesy of HBO)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Photo courtesy of HBO)

John Oliver took a hit at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindu nationalism and censorship on Sunday's edition of "Last Week Tonight."

The British-American comedian noted that India's election results will be announced on June 4 and it's almost a guarantee that Modi will remain in power. "One polling organization found he has an approval rating of 74%, more than any world leader they track," Oliver pointed out.

However, Oliver noted that this isn't the first time the show has covered Modi and his steady push to convert India, one of the largest countries in the world, into a Hindu nationalist state. Oliver said that Modi and his party have rejected "India’s history as a pluralistic nation and trying to push it toward becoming an explicitly Hindu one."

Moreover, the comedian highlighted there is a reason why Modi is very popular with his constituents. Oliver said he campaigned on "expanding access to sanitation and water facilities and has invested billions in a nationwide upgrade of the country’s roads, railways, airports, and seaports. On top of that, there’ve been programs to alleviate poverty, for which some citizens thank him personally." But the biggest reason for Modi's success is his economic record. During his tenure, the country has "grown to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. It’s almost twice as big as it was, and its stock market has grown threefold since he took office."

But there is a major caveat, Oliver noted, since India changed how it defines poverty to a measure that includes fewer people than before. "Right, anyone can get rid of 'all' poverty if you just change the definition of 'poor people' to something else, like, I dunno, 'fire hydrants' or 'opposite snakes,'" Oliver quipped. 

The show also highlighted growing wealth gap between the country's rich and poor. "By some estimates, just one million people now control around 80% of India’s wealth. And as they’ve gotten richer, much of the country has gotten poorer," Oliver said. 

And as this wealth gap widens, criticizing Modi and his party has become increasingly difficult as censorship runs wild and Modi-aligned billionaires own some media companies, Oliver continued.

"Basically, if you criticize Modi, there’s a pretty good chance things are going to get very unpleasant for you. And given that we’re here in America, I’m honestly not too worried about Modi’s goons coming after me," Oliver joked.

"But on the off chance their reach does extend this far, you know what? F***ing try it. You want to try and shut us down for being critical? I dare you. Do you have any idea who I am? I’m Bill f***ing Maher, and my show has been on for–holy s**t–over 20 years now, and if you want to take us down, take your best shot," he quipped.

Oliver mentioned that "Last Week Tonight" has been censored in India too. Crackdowns create "a clear chilling effect where media outlets may well be intimidated out of criticizing Modi. That could actually help explain why Hotstar, the platform we were on in 2020, mysteriously chose to block our episode criticizing Modi."

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Additionally, Oliver spoke to the growing and troubling anti-Muslim sentiment in India amid rising Hindu nationalism. In one case, Modi opened a Hindu temple built on the site of a mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in the '90s, in a conflict that killed over 2,000 mostly Muslim people. 

Oliver said "asking a British person, 'What should we do about India?' is a little bit dangerous, as we tend to have quite a lot of ideas, none of which should be listened to. But as an international community, it seems past time to stop the uncritical fawning praise of a man who is, to put it mildly, a deeply complicated figure."

However, he understands that "this episode is almost definitely not going to end up airing in India. And depending on what they do with the laws around YouTube, I’m not totally sure what’ll happen to it there, either. So if this show does get taken down, and if you have friends or family living in India who’d like to see it, just encourage them to visit where they’ll find tons of fascinating facts on opposite snakes, as well as a 25-minute video titled 'Opposite Snakes,' which is, in fact, this entire story."

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver airs on Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on Max.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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