The Red Carpet for Indian PM Modi
Obama administration officials appear eager to court Narendra Modi as leader of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, while many in India feel uncomfortable about how close Obama has become with Modi under his rule and expressed concerns that their cozy relationship could limit space for minorities, civil society organizations, and free media in India.
Establishing closer ties with the US can boost India’s global standing, but at an additional expense.
- India’s economic growth
India has emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies due to strong domestic demand and an expanding middle class, but in order to reach its full potential and avoid overheating, more investments in areas like technology, agriculture and water must be made – the United States being India’s primary investor as well as an ally against China’s rise.
Both countries have been engaged in joint negotiations to strengthen economic ties. Defense and energy deals, along with climate-related agreements such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions or increasing access to clean energy are currently underway between New Delhi and Washington. Although Washington may disagree with India on certain matters pertaining to their responsibilities as developed and developing nations, New Delhi nonetheless serves as an ally when dealing with Beijing.
Critics argue that despite this high-profile visit, not enough attention has been focused on Modi’s crackdown on civil liberties and his tenuous relations with Russia. A group of Democratic lawmakers including Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; Greg Casar from Texas; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York have written to Biden asking him to raise concerns regarding Modi’s human rights record while on his visit.
Biden and his team have responded to criticism with an affirmation of commitment to an “next-generation partnership” between India and the U.S. that “respects pluralism, an open internet and human rights.” During an Oval Office meeting Thursday with Modi, Biden made clear their respective countries believe press and religious freedoms are core to democracy.
One day earlier, both leaders met with several CEOs for a bilateral forum at the State Department to discuss ways in which India could become a counterbalance to Chinese influence while weaning itself off dependence on Russian arms.
Modi will address Congress during his trip, an honor only a select few leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have ever received. Additionally, Biden will host Modi for a state dinner at the White House–an event typically reserved for close allies–on Thursday.
- China’s influence
As China expands its influence in South Asia, the US sees India as an important counterbalance. Both nations share an interest in fostering regional stability and prosperity, as well as security concerns pertaining to terrorism and cyberattacks.
The US is looking to strengthen defense ties with India, one of its primary military equipment buyers. Furthermore, they wish to establish business partnerships in technology areas like electric vehicles.
Modi will visit the US as prime minister for the first time and has packed his agenda with high-profile meetings and addresses. He will address Congress and attend a state dinner – usually reserved for close allies such as France’s Emmanuel Macron or South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol – before meeting tech CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft Satya Nadella as well as Biden in bilateral summit talks. But his most memorable event will likely be his bilateral summit meeting with Biden!
Leaders from India and America will work to promote collaboration on advanced scientific infrastructure, such as India’s pledge of $140 million in-kind contribution to Fermi National Laboratory in collaboration with American physics research facility. They will also discuss resuming work on India’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory as well as joint efforts advancing biotechnology, advanced materials manufacturing and biomanufacturing techniques as well as biosafety/biosecurity innovation, practices, norms – among other initiatives.
Additionally, leaders will promote the establishment of a global network of science and innovation centers to foster entrepreneurialism for economic development and global prosperity. Furthermore, they will seek to form new international partnerships to advance the goals of the Indo-Pacific Action Agenda.
Critics of US policies regarding Modi have voiced concerns that its willingness to overlook what they perceive to be his right-wing nationalist agenda and any human rights violations at home is questionable. Amnesty International specifically has accused him of contributing to anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 as well as suppressing freedom of speech and religion in his province of Gujarat. Biden pledged publicly that he will hold Modi accountable on human rights matters; this gesture bears less symbolic weight.
- India’s human rights record
Narendra Modi’s extravagant welcome in Washington this week belies some of the more complex issues at play. While US leaders seek to rally democracy across the board to take on China and support Ukraine, Modi himself faces scrutiny as an autocratic leader of India.
Modi leads the world’s largest democracy but also exhibits autocratic nationalist tendencies, leading to widespread criticism in the US from lawmakers and advocacy groups including over 70 Democratic members of Congress who wrote a letter calling on Biden to raise concerns regarding religious and press freedom with Modi.
Biden attempted to address these concerns while meeting with Modi this week in the Oval Office and speaking before Congress on Thursday. Biden persuaded Modi, who hasn’t held a press conference for 10 years prior to becoming India’s prime minister, to accept questions in his first public engagement since becoming head of government.
These conversations highlight the difficulty associated with reconciling values with geopolitical priorities. Jones noted that, although the United States may be concerned with press and religious freedom erosion in India, they maintain diplomatic ties with countries with far worse records such as China and Saudi Arabia.
Amanda Klasing, national director of Government Relations and Advocacy at Amnesty International USA echoed this point by noting that India cannot afford to alienate itself for policy goals against China and Russia. Jones suggested that America cannot turn a blind eye to India’s violations against its own citizens’ human rights.
Due to these considerations, it is imperative for the US and India to establish a solid partnership and demonstrate to Modi the necessity of protecting fundamental freedoms for all in democracy. But at the same time, it must address troubling issues on the table such as gender inequality and crackdowns on religious minorities.
- India’s democracy
No other American president has shown such generous hospitality towards an Indian prime minister as is being extended to Narendra Modi this week by President Obama. Full honors were accorded him at both his arrival and departure; accommodation at Blair House (an official guest house directly across from the White House); as well as state dinner. Discussion between both leaders are anticipated on topics ranging from technology to India’s strategic partnership with America.
The US is working to strengthen its defense ties with India in order to take advantage of its expansive domestic military market. They expect to sign a $3 billion arms deal for over a dozen Predator drones as well as agreements on semiconductors and critical minerals between their countries.
Modi will likely emphasize shared democratic values between India and America during his speech to Congress, though this could prove challenging given recent criticism aimed at his government from rights activists for how they treat religious and minority freedoms.
Though some in the US may express concerns, many remain eagerly anticipatory of Modi’s visit. Business leaders including Tesla CEO Elon Musk are making plans to meet him. Additionally, the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum is planning a CEOs’ meeting for Thursday at its Ronald Reagan building and an Indian diaspora reception at which up to 5,000 attendees could gather.
White House officials have showered Prime Minister Narendra Modi with praise and gifts, prompting some critics to fear Washington may be becoming too cozy with India’s second-most populous democracy leader. Many fear the US has fallen under Modi’s spell due to his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with which they may overlook his government’s human rights record to take advantage of India’s growing economic might.
The White House has maintained a close relationship with India, noting that democratic nations “go beyond elections. Democracy involves everything that happens between elections.” But one key question remains for Washington – can they exert sufficient pressure against some of India’s democratic decline while still remaining committed as an important ally. Read More>>>