United States President Joe Biden has laid out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On Wednesday night, the president and First Lady Jill Biden hosted Modi at the White House for a private dinner. Biden, who has hailed the Indian PM as his friend, will also host a state dinner for Modi on Thursday. Earlier in the day, Modi will address the US Congress for the second time – Winston Churchill and Benjamin Netanyahu (thrice each) are the only other world leaders to have spoken to Congress more than once.
One word is likely to dominate Modi’s conversations on Capitol Hill and in the White House: democracy. Successive US presidents, especially since Bill Clinton, have referred to America and India as natural partners, citing shared values as the world’s two largest democracies, and investing heavily in the relationship.
Yet, Biden’s latest guest has been pilloried by Indian and international rights groups, as well as media watchdogs, for the incarceration of human rights activists, an alarming rise in attacks against minorities – in particular Muslims – by Hindu far-right groups and India’s slide in media freedom indices.
The US Commission on International Freedom, an independent commission appointed by the federal government that Biden leads, has itself recommended adding India to a blacklist of nations where religious freedoms continue to worsen, for the fourth year in a row. Global organisations like Freedom House and V-Dem, which rate the state of rights and democracy across the world, have concluded that India is witnessing a democratic backslide.
Still, the US and its allies continue to embrace Modi.
So is the West ignoring its stated values when it comes to Modi? Will Biden raise human rights concerns when he meets Modi, as many members of Congress and editorials in leading US publications have advised? And is Modi exploiting Western validation to burnish his democratic credentials?
The short answer: The US and its allies view India as a pivotal strategic partner to contain China, which they consider a threat. Meanwhile, in an increasingly multipolar world, the West’s leverage to pressure India has reduced. The result? Hugs and back slaps for Modi and lip service to human rights.
Modi has been chosen democratically, like previous Indian governments, by the world’s largest electorate through free elections. The prime minister, in fact, has won the two biggest mandates (in 2014 and 2019) since 1984, and even his critics concede his vast popularity across large swathes of the country.
But according to those critics, Modi is fundamentally different from any previous Indian government. While earlier leaders visiting the West too have faced protests over alleged rights violations, Modi has been accused of trying to change the very nature of the secular Indian state.
In addition to human rights and press freedom concerns, his administration faces accusations of hollowing out the institutions that previously worked independently of the government and ensured a level playing field – such as the election commission and law enforcement agencies.
Modi’s policies and the way they are implemented haven’t gone unnoticed in the US. Several politicians from the Democratic Party now in power, including current Vice President Kamala Harris, criticised the Modi government’s revocation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in 2019, pushed through without a debate in the Indian parliament.
If the Biden administration chooses to ignore that recent history, it wouldn’t be surprising, according to Sushant Singh, a foreign policy and defence analyst, and senior fellow at the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research.
“The hypocrisy of the Western countries has always been known. They supported the worst repressive regimes across the world, including the apartheid regime in South Africa,” said Singh.
“The idea that the West is somehow virtuous and that it has now turned hypocritical on Modi is completely misplaced.”
He cited the example of former US President Ronald Reagan and his claim that he was fighting for democracy – while also supporting the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua against the popular socialist government in the Central American nation in the 1980s.
“So, what they say and what they do are two different things,” Singh said.
That gap between words and deeds is largely true under Biden too, suggested Matthew Duss, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former foreign policy adviser to US Senator Bernie Sanders.
“I do think that it is important for the United States to make clear that these kinds of [human rights] abuses will have consequences,” Duss told Al Jazeera. “I think this is where this administration thus far has come up really short.”
Will Biden change his approach during Modi’s visit?
On Tuesday, more than 70 members of the US Congress wrote a letter to Biden urging him to ask Modi to uphold “human rights and democratic values” during their Thursday meeting.
Separately, at least three Congresswomen – Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez – announced that they would boycott Modi’s address to the US Congress.
“It’s shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation’s capital,” Tlaib wrote on Twitter.
Michael Kugelman, the Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, said India’s human rights situation would likely be raised privately but wouldn’t be discussed publicly as the Indian government has pushed back against such criticism in the past.
“Indeed, the US is very selective with this democracy and rights promotion policy as it all comes down to cold hard interest,” Kugelman said.
When it comes to New Delhi, that “interest” for Washington revolves around India’s giant eastern neighbour.
“Washington continues to view India as the key country in South Asia to work with the US to counter China because of their shared rivalry with China,” Kugelman said.
And as tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to rise, India’s importance for the US will only grow, say experts.
Counterweight to China
Officially, Indian and American officials insist their relationship stands on its own feet, independent of any other nation.
And indeed, India-US relations have grown by leaps and bounds since New Delhi opened up its economy in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War, during which it pursued a so-called non-aligned foreign policy – though it was closer to the Soviet Union in reality.
India-US bilateral trade has skyrocketed from $20bn in 2000 to $128bn in 2021-22. The US is today India’s top trading partner.
India traditionally depended on the Soviet Union and then Russia for its weapons systems. Now it is increasingly purchasing military platforms from US and European manufacturers. Indian and American officials are reportedly discussing a landmark deal under which General Electric will manufacture jet engines in India, and transfer much of the technology involved – something that the US typically allows only with treaty allies.
Economically, it’s a good fit. New Delhi is seeking Western capital and access to more advanced technologies, particularly in the semiconductor and defence sectors.
Meanwhile, the West sees India, now the world’s fifth-largest economy and most populous nation, as a major market. Indian foreign policy analyst C Raja Mohan has dubbed the current situation as Modi’s “Deng Xiaoping moment”, referring to the former Chinese leader’s policy of opening up the economy to attract Western capital and technology that transformed the country’s economy.
Yet many analysts believe that it is current Chinese President Xi Jinping – not Deng – whom Indian and American leaders see when they look over their shoulders. A shared worry about China and its perceived belligerence under Xi is the real glue binding New Delhi to Washington and its allies, they say.
Especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, the US and India are looking to diversify global supply chains away from China – the world’s second-largest economy and manufacturing capital. India’s bilateral trade with China, for instance, stands at $113bn despite border tensions.
Those tensions exploded into a bloody fistfight with rocks and sticks in June 2020, leaving 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers dead in the worst border clash between the neighbours since their war in 1962. The two Asian giants have since beefed up their military presence along their contested Himalayan border, with the US providing intelligence on Chinese positions to New Delhi.
Kugelman from the Wilson Center said Modi’s Washington visit comes at a time when US-India relations have been “riding a lot of momentum”.
“Washington sees New Delhi as a special kind of strategic partner, one to be enlisted in what is Washington’s biggest strategic objective – that is to counter Chinese power,” he said. “The US has helped equip India with the capacity to deter China on its border or in Southeast Asia through the provision of weapons technology, intelligence and other components.”
India – along with the US, Australia and Japan – is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad grouping, which seeks to counter China’s power projection in the Indo-Pacific region. China has asserted claims over most of the South China Sea, angering other nations in the region.
The US, Australia, India and Japan are also strengthening military cooperation, including through annual naval exercises.
Yet, for all of that strategic camaraderie, there are limits to how far India is ready to go militarily with the US and its Western allies.
‘Unipolar moment is over’
The Quad and tight military ties with the US and the broader West give India the support it needs to challenge China.
But New Delhi is reluctant to turn the Quad into a traditional military alliance: It is not a treaty ally of the West and wants to retain the room to manoeuvre between major powers. The concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, a term frequently uttered by Indian officials, is central to the country’s foreign policy approach – one that governments of all ideologies have followed.
It maintains good relations with Russia, refusing to condemn Moscow’s aggressions against Ukraine and buying millions of barrels of Russian crude despite immense pressure from the West to boycott that oil.
According to the UN, India has sold arms to Myanmar, which has been under Western sanctions since the 2020 military coup against the Southeast Asian nation’s previously democratic government.
In May, Modi joined the G7 leaders as they met in Hiroshima, a special invitee at the high table of Western diplomacy. At the same time, it is a founding member of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, which is discussing ways to reduce the dependence of emerging economies on the US dollar. India is also a member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) grouping that also includes Russia, India’s archrival Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Some experts say the US does not have the leverage to pressure India and other nations to reverse these policies in a multipolar world.
“I would say India is defining its own interests and a lot of other US partners are defining their interests in ways that do not entirely comport with what the US would prefer,” Duss from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace said.
“The unipolar moment is over. I think that’s the reality, but the question is what steps the United States is willing to take when some of these partner governments such as India are engaged in abuses against their own population,” he said.
The fawning praise of Modi by Western leaders is seen by supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as validation of the prime minister as a global icon.
Modi’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah boasted recently that the PM’s “popularity transcended barriers of distance and culture” after Biden reportedly remarked to Modi that the prime minister was wildly popular in the US when they met in Hiroshima in May.
The Indian prime minister has fashioned his foreign policy around his personality – bear-hugging foreign leaders, hobnobbing with corporate honchos and connecting with India’s rich and influential diaspora groups. He has exploited India’s soft power such as Bollywood and yoga to his advantage: On Wednesday, he led celebrations for the International Day of Yoga at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
All of this represents an extraordinary turnaround for a person who was an international political pariah and was denied visas by the US and European countries in the years after more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed on his watch as chief minister of the state of Gujarat in deadly violence in 2002. Modi has denied charges of involvement, and India’s top court has upheld an inquiry report that declared him blameless.
After a damning BBC documentary released earlier this year raised fresh questions about his administration’s complicity in the violence, his government swiftly banned the screening of the film. BBC offices across India were raided.
The visa bans were lifted after Modi became prime minister in 2014, and he began making up for lost time.
“Soon after becoming prime minister almost a decade ago, he took a huge charm offensive, appearing in concerts in New York’s Central Park with [American rap artist] Jay-Z,” Kugelman says. “He has really rehabilitated himself in the eyes of the West.”
When Modi is feted by political leaders in the same West that once barred him from visiting, that helps him politically, said Singh of the Centre for Policy Research.
“His supporters feel validated and happy,” he said.
“It’s a message to his own committed cadres to show how powerful Modi is that the West has bent down to his will and his leadership,” Singh said. “It also plays into a very subtle nationalist agenda where it is linked to national honour and national respect.”
Modi’s masterful use of symbolism means that leaders like Biden must stay cautious about appearing too chummy with the Indian leader, said Kugelman.
“I think leaders in the West need to be careful about the optics of how they engage with him on a personal level,” he said.
“It’s perfectly understandable to praise him for his efforts to advance the partnership. But in terms of doing anything that is perceived as endorsing him as a person or political figure – that’s where you need to be really very careful.”
By not adhering to such a red line, the West is undermining the democratic model of growth that India represented since independence, said Singh.
He acknowledged that the US, United Kingdom and other Western countries have their interests aligned with India’s when it comes to containing China.
But “in fulfilling those interests, you do not need to praise India’s democratic regression which is clearly visible to everybody”, Singh said.
“Their dishonesty is hurting India.”
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