Indian PM Modi’s White House visit tests Biden’s democracy-vs.-autocracy pitch

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JUNE 21, 2023

Denied a U.S. visa in 2005 over deadly religious riots in his home state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Washington on Wednesday for a state visit that will highlight his change in fortune and growing global clout, even as concerns about human rights and democratic erosion in India are intensifying across the nation he now leads.

For the man rolling out the red carpet for him, President Biden, the visit underscores both the promise of strengthening ties with the world’s most populous nation and the peril of positioning his presidency as a pivotal force in the global battle between autocracy and democracy.

With Modi leading the world’s largest democracy while overseeing trends that human rights groups say undermine democratic principles, Biden’s decision to host a state visit risks undermining one of his key campaign messages against Donald Trump in 2020.

India is emerging as an increasingly vital player in a region the United States has prioritized in its foreign policy — a potential bulwark against China and an increasingly powerful actor in sectors including technology, defense and the arts. But the country’s tilt toward illiberalism is at odds with the kind of message Biden has embraced during his presidency about the importance of proving that democracy is a preferable model to the more autocratic principles espoused by foes such as China and Russia.

Nonetheless, administration officials said, it’s important to send a message that the two countries should be able to work together in service of their respective interests.

“It’s a hinge moment,” said Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, adding that the U.S.-India relationship “will be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.”

Pressed on whether Biden’s autocracies-vs.-democracies argument remains relevant in the current environment, Sullivan said Washington’s feting of Modi did not conflict with the president’s broader approach to global diplomacy.

“I do think we are dealing with the gathering and march of autocratic forces in ways that are not in the United States’ national interest, and that we do need to rally the values, norms and forces of democracy to push back against that,” he said in a Tuesday interview with a small group of reporters. “And that is a point the president has made consistently since he came into office. But he has also been clear that in that larger effort, we need constructive relationships with countries of all different traditions and backgrounds.”

During Modi’s trip to Washington, which began Wednesday evening and includes a joint address to Congress and a state dinner at the White House, the growing importance of the U.S.-India relationship will be on full display. In addition to discussing shared interests concerning China, Biden and Modi are set to announce new partnerships on defense platforms and technology — including a significant deal to jointly produce a GE fighter jet engine in India — as well as talk about trade, the war in Ukraine and India’s ambitions for a larger role on the global stage.

The pomp and pageantry of a state visit will allow both men to mark a moment of recognition for the Indian diaspora on the global stage, with hundreds of business leaders, policymakers, celebrities and scholars set to gather at the White House. Vice President Harris will be one of dozens of Indian American officials hailing the ties between two countries that successive U.S. presidents have described the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

Praise for the relationship — and for Modi himself — has only seemed to intensify since Biden took office.

At the May 23 launch of a U.S.-India workshop to boost cooperation on 5G telecommunications, Eric Garcetti, the new U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, described India as developing in Modi’s “wonderful hands.” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in April called Modi an “unbelievable” and “visionary” figure — and the most popular leader in the world.

Kurt Campbell, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific and deputy assistant to the president, described the state visit as an opportunity to elevate the bilateral relationship to the pinnacle of global diplomacy.

“My hope is that this visit … consecrates the U.S.-India relationship as the most important bilateral relationship for the United States on the global stage,” he said at the Hudson Institute this month.

But human rights activists and some lawmakers are concerned that the festive atmosphere and optimistic rhetoric could overshadow important conversations about a backslide in democratic principles in India under Modi. They are writing letters to Biden and engaging in closed-door diplomacy to try to ensure that Modi feels some international pressure over his domestic policies and rhetoric.

Many are pointing to Biden’s own words, in which he pledged to promote both U.S. interests and U.S. values while serving as commander in chief.

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” Biden said last year, a refrain he has repeated often throughout his presidency. “This is a real test. It’s going to take time.”

When it comes to democracy and human rights, “you can expect that [Biden] will say something in that vein in his public comments, as well as in his private comments” to Modi, Sullivan said. “But precisely what he says, of course, I leave to him.”

The state dinner Thursday will punctuate a stunning turnaround for an Indian politician who was castigated by Western governments two decades ago after religious riots erupted in his state of Gujarat, leading to the deaths of hundreds of Muslims. Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist and the then-Gujarat chief minister, was accused of letting the riots spread and was denied a visa by the State Department in 2005 under a law that holds foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Since Modi’s rise to national power in 2014, India has increasingly resembled an autocracy, according to independent groups such as the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which monitors democracies around the world. Researchers have pointed to a rise in the persecution of Muslim minorities — including vigilante killings of Muslim men accused of slaughtering cows or dating Hindu women — the spread of unfettered hate speech as well as the persecution of activists, journalists and political opposition figures. In March, the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was removed from Parliament, disqualified from elections and faced with possible imprisonment after he mocked Modi at a political rally. In February, the Modi government ordered Twitter and Facebook to take down links to a BBC documentary exploring Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots and detained university students who tried to hold campus screenings.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International held a screening of the documentary in Washington on Tuesday, part of a growing effort by activists to raise awareness about India’s lurch toward repression and religious intolerance under Modi.

“He’s basically utilizing this sort of proto-authoritarian Hindu nationalism for political aims thinking he can keep it all bottled up,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “He’s playing with fire.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), led more than 70 members of the House and Senate in an open letter to Biden on Tuesday, urging him in his upcoming conversations with Modi to address “areas of concern” in addition to the two countries’ expanding economic and strategic partnership.

“A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. They specifically cited the State Department’s own findings on India’s deteriorating political and religious freedoms.

Modi has denied claims that there is religious intolerance in India, and rejected calls for reforms.

The growing importance of India on the world stage has emboldened the prime minister, who is popular at home and leads a young, growing population that recently overtook China to become the world’s largest at 1.4 billion.

“India deserves a much higher, deeper and wider profile and a role,” Modi told the Wall Street Journal.

The Biden administration largely agrees with that sentiment, and it sees in India a strong potential partner that can counter China’s growing influence.

One area where the United States and India have taken diverging positions is the war in Ukraine. India, which has continued to buy oil and weapons from Russia, has not publicly condemned the Russian invasion.

Sullivan acknowledged that Washington and New Delhi have different perspectives on Ukraine but said it was nonetheless important for India to hear the U.S. perspective. “We think this actually sends a message” to Ukraine “that we are working to advocate on their behalf with a broader range of countries” than just NATO or Western allies.

Modi is seeking a larger role for his country on the world stage — calling for India to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. It is not clear whether Biden will endorse such a move during the visit, but the state visit invitation is the latest indication that India is paying little if any price for its decision to abstain from U.N. votes condemning the invasion.

On security affairs, China is pulling the United States and India together, but more broadly the “magnetism” includes the two countries’ respective market sizes and growth and strong people-to-people ties. India vies with China for the most students in the United States and tops the list for H1-B nonimmigrant visas for skilled labor, notes Richard Rossow, chair of U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Biden and Modi talk during the G-20 leaders summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022.Dita Alangkara/AP

The large and increasingly politically powerful Indian American diaspora is also a factor in the increasingly close relationship.

Modi, who attended a 2019 rally of several thousand people alongside former president Donald Trump in Houston, maintains a large following and deep support among Indian American voters.

Modi can expect to again see throngs of Indian Americans coming out for his state visit, said Shekar Narasimhan, a Democratic fundraiser who leads AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC focused on turning out Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“Every event is sold out,” said Narasimhan, who will be attending the state dinner and the joint address to Congress. Along with the excitement, however, “there is chagrin and teeth-gnashing” in some sectors of the diaspora over Modi’s human rights record.

The Indian diaspora, like India itself, is diverse and encompasses a wide range of political viewpoints and religious faiths. While polls show that a majority of Indian Americans support Democrats, the group is far from monolithic. Even as the Biden administration will be featuring many of the hundreds of Indian American officials in government during the state visit — including Harris, top speechwriter Vinay Reddy, and Domestic Policy Council director Neera Tanden — Republicans are also ramping up their efforts to reach out to Americans of South Asian descent.

Two Indian American leaders are running for the presidency in the Republican Party: former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Trump, the Republican front-runner, boasted of a strong relationship with Modi and has already launched a “Hindus for Trump” affinity group to pursue South Asian voters.

Within that context, officials in the White House are wary of coming across as lecturing Modi — who is also popular in his country and won reelection by a comfortable margin — on human rights and democracy.

“Ultimately, the question of where politics and … democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians,” said Sullivan. “It’s not going to be determined by the United States.”


Courtesy/Source: Washington Post