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Why the US should reach out to India's Opposition, not just PM Modi

Biden repeatedly insists the US stands for democracy against autocracy. If this is not just some expedient rhetoric, policy makers must bring moral principle in line with policy

PM Modi

PM Modi (Photo: Bloomberg)

By Pankaj Mishra

Warmly welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US this week, Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration will underscore the flip side of growing antagonism to China: a deepening infatuation with Modi’s India.
The affection was manifest most recently — and embarrassingly — when US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, wearing a colorful Indian outfit and gesticulating emphatically, hailed Modi as a “visionary,” who was “unbelievable,” even “indescribable.” No doubt, Modi’s India is irresistible to many US leaders as the world’s biggest arms buyer, an enticing market for US capital and goods, and the ancestral country of an affluent, politically consequential and largely Democrat-voting diaspora.  

But India is also a country, where, as writers including Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri pointed out in a signed statement last year, “hate speech is expressed and disseminated loudly; where Muslims are discriminated against and lynched, their homes and mosques bulldozed, their livelihoods destroyed; where Christians are beaten and churches attacked; where political prisoners are held in jail without trial.”

Modi’s Western cheerleaders obscure the depth of fears about his government among the large and globally prominent Indian intelligentsia, not to mention respected institutions such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and the Committee to Protect Journalists. No less than the US Holocaust Memorial Museum recently ranked India eighth, above Syria and Somalia, in a list of 162 countries exposed to the risk of mass killings.

It is hard to see how the Biden administration can pursue intimacy with such a government without risking both the long-term reputation and material interests of the US.

For one, despite his government’s use of the judiciary, tax authorities, and security and intelligence agencies against critics, Modi’s domination over Indian politics is hardly complete. He has notably failed to persuade electorates in India’s richest states in the south; his Bharatiya Janata Party still only gets a little over a third of the national vote. And it remains far from clear how electorally potent Hindu nationalism will be in India’s poorest and most populous states whenever Modi himself departs the scene.

Moreover, as recent violence in the state of Manipur shows, the government’s efforts at social engineering in border regions with non-Hindu populations could radically destabilize India. The US cannot afford to be seen taking what could turn out to be — yet again — the catastrophically wrong side in a country’s existential conflicts.

US support for despots in Latin America sowed the seeds of a seemingly ineradicable anti-Americanism in the region. More recently, former President George W. Bush found Vladimir Putin to be “very straightforward and trustworthy.” The perils of such misjudgments are even higher today, amid a global surge of authoritarian and neo-fascist regimes.

Biden repeatedly insists the US stands for democracy against autocracy. If this is not just some expedient rhetoric, policy makers must bring moral principle in line with policy.

As it happens, this challenge is less difficult than it seems in the case of India — especially compared to, say, Saudi Arabia. And it needn’t involve moralizing about the virtues of democracy and pluralism. For Modi himself never ceases to proclaim India as the “mother of democracy” and originator of the idea that “the world is one family.”

The US government should take up Modi’s invitation to broad and naturally flowing links between India and the world. It should reach out to India’s battered and besieged political opposition; it should talk publicly to the Indian intelligentsia. And, when his government complains about foreign interference, it should hold Modi to his own vision of a traditionally cosmopolitan and open Indian society. 

In any case, Modi himself has invited foreigners into Indian politics by relentlessly projecting his popularity among foreign leaders in order to woo Indian voters. Biden could, if he wishes, innovatively use the glamor and authority invested in his office and forge a closer and more multi-dimensional relationship between the US and India.

For those who seek it, a middle way exists between hailing Modi as an unbelievable visionary and sternly lecturing him about India’s democratic deficit. There is ample scope for a US policy that is both pragmatic and ethical, which not only recognizes India’s geostrategic and economic importance but also honors the pluralistic politics and culture of its society.

By vigorously flattering Modi, the Biden administration instead echoes former President Donald Trump’s weakness for strongmen. It also evokes US adversaries Russia and China, who are only too happy to strike lucrative deals with blatantly illiberal regimes while turning a blind eye to their violations of civil liberties and ordinary decency.

Perhaps we can expect nothing more as big powers aggressively scramble for military and economic advantage. But a greater common good is worth striving for even in our bleakly amoral, multipolar world.

Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg Opinion piece, and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the views of or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: Jun 22 2023 | 7:51 AM IST

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