A glitzy visit to Washington by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was coming to a close Friday was a reminder that when strategic interests align, U.S. leaders can find ways to minimize differences on human rights and democratic values, even for a nation where minority groups say they find themselves increasingly embattled under Hindu nationalist rule.
There were days of ovations in Congress and backslapping meetings with President Biden. A White House celebration surrounded by 7,000 adoring supporters who dwarfed the dissenters. And on Friday, speeches to business titans who want to make money in the world’s most populous nation.
After a trip for which U.S. leaders largely set aside criticism in pursuit of a partnership against China, Modi may be emboldened to take a tougher stand at home that could eventually undermine the country’s stability and backfire on the White House, analysts said. But for now, Modi’s wager appears to be that so long as Washington needs India for its core foreign policy interests, he can still earn invitations stamped with a golden U.S. seal.
“The state visit confirms for India that illiberal or anti-democratic moves won’t in the near term change the strategic partnership,” said Tamanna Salikuddin, a former State Department official who directs South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The U.S. has a high tolerance for illiberalism when we want to.”
Modi on Friday was expected to cap his U.S. visit by meeting with a crowd of supportive leaders from the large Indian American diaspora, many of whom cheered what they said was Modi’s pursuit of placing India in the top tier of nations. They outnumbered others who bitterly complained that Washington — and much of the diaspora community in the United States — was turning a blind eye to violence and repression against India’s large non-Hindu population.
Administration officials said they delivered their concerns about the rights of Muslims and other minority groups, but quietly. The louder messages underscored Washington’s need for a strong partner in New Delhi at a time when the United States has entered a swaggering competition with Beijing for control over the architecture of global trade and security — and could use a friend in Delhi.
The strategy carries some risks, analysts say, amid what the State Department has said is worsening sectarian violence in India and increased pressure on journalists and Modi’s political opposition. Violence between ethnic groups — one largely Hindu, one largely Christian — in the northeast state of Manipur has claimed more than 100 lives since May, for instance, and led to the deployment of the Indian military to quell violence not far from the border with China. Elsewhere, political opponents — including the leader of the main opposition party — have faced charges for defaming Modi.
“What we don’t want is that these issues blow up and they are so distracted, so internally focused, that they aren’t able to focus on China, aren’t able to focus on other issues,” Salikuddin said.
“But I don’t think that’s the case yet,” she said. “They are confronting China in such a direct and open way that it would take a lot to pull them off that border.”
The balance between values and interests isn’t always easy, and Biden isn’t the first to confront the challenge. Whoever occupies the White House has “a lot of equities” to protect, former president Barack Obama told CNN in an interview that aired Thursday, and he noted that when he was in office, he dealt with allies who, “if you pressed me in private, do they run their governments and their political parties in ways that I would say are ideally democratic? I’d have to say no.”
Obama said safeguarding minority rights in India is important to raise, in part as a question of ensuring the stability of the country.
“If I had a conversation with Prime Minister Modi,” he said, “part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility India at some point starts pulling apart. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts.”
For now, the Biden administration has downplayed divisions with India, prioritizing ties to push back China even over other core U.S. focuses. The administration has encouraged partner countries to reduce their trade with Russia, for instance, but a senior State Department official claimed ahead of the visit that India’s growing purchases of Russian oil in fact further American interests, even though they deliver money to the Kremlin’s war chest.
“India will make its own decisions about whether it purchases oil from Russia,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal considerations.
“We hope that India will continue to use the G-7 oil price cap to leverage lower costs for the Russian oil that it purchases,” the official said, referring to an effort by major world economies to sanction the sale of Russian oil above a set price. “That’s in the interest of all of us that it buys Russian crude at rock bottom prices.”
“Our partnership between India and the United States will go a long way, in my view, to define what the 21st century looks like,” Biden said Friday at a meeting with Modi and top U.S. and Indian business leaders.
“Democracy is one of our sacred and shared values,” Modi said a day earlier in a speech to a joint session of Congress that was regularly punctuated by cheers and chants of “Modi! Modi!” by his fans in the viewing gallery of the chamber.
Some representatives of India’s large diaspora community in the United States said they were delighted by the muscular reception.
“This is a visit that says India has arrived. India is being treated as an equal,” said Amitabh VW Mittal, general secretary of the U.S. Indian Community Foundation, the group that hosted the diaspora event Friday. Mittal said he attended the congressional address and was astounded by the standing ovations.
He was dismissive of criticism of Modi’s human rights record.
“We have greater strife in the United States. We have greater strife in other countries,” Mittal said.
The generally welcoming response sparked frustration, though, among Indian American human rights advocates who said Modi was hollowing out his nation’s long tradition as a squabbling, multiethnic, secular democracy. And some human rights advocates said he was using the embrace by the leader of the free world to burnish his credentials in advance of an election in India next year — to “whitewash” his persecution of minorities, said Arjun Sethi, a human rights lawyer.
Modi was denied a U.S. visa for his alleged involvement in 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat, which killed at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. And since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Muslim, Christian and Sikh minorities have faced persecution, according to State Department human rights reports.
“It’s as though there are two realities,” said Sunita Viswanath, a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, a group that advocates for minority rights in India and helped organize protests in New York and Washington to coincide with Modi’s visit.
“It’s a willful closing of our collective eye to a march to a far-right-wing drumbeat of the largest so-called democracy in the world toward becoming a theocracy,” said Viswanath, who is Indian American.
She said the Modi visit was being closely tracked in diaspora communities around the world, who stay connected through the WhatsApp and Signal chat apps. But she said that in her activism work, she is sometimes frustrated with fellow Americans who have roots in India.
“It’s a lonely job in a diasporic community that is just mesmerized with stepping into power and privilege,” she said.
India has not chosen sides between the West and Russia, and hasn’t suffered for it, said Joshua T. White, a professor of practice at Johns Hopkins University and a senior adviser and director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
“They feel they are a desirable partner for many countries and therefore don’t really have to engage on human rights issues,” he said. “If anything, the Biden administration’s extremely lofty rhetoric about the relationship plays into this sense in India that they hold most of the cards.”
But if illiberal trends within India continue, that could dampen Washington’s enthusiasm to treat the country as “an exceptional partner,” White said.
Modi’s message has been that India celebrates the same values America does — and that India is a power to be taken seriously and treated as equal. “I liked it,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), emerging from the House chamber on Thursday. The United States isn’t in a position to condescend and criticize, he said.
“We’re not going to be like the senior partner where we can just dictate to them,” he said of the evolving U.S.-India relationship. “But working together, we can do so much good … and we’ve got to stand together against China.”
Five Democratic members of Congress, none of them Indian American, boycotted the address, complaining that human rights issues were being papered over during the visit.
“Having the pragmatic view of saying ‘This is a country that is of importance to us’ is fine,” one of them, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), said in an interview Friday, stressing that diplomatic relationships — including with non-democracies and other “problematic” countries — are critical for U.S. foreign policy.
But taking the “extra step” of honoring them with a state dinner and joint address to Congress “sends the wrong message to those that they are oppressing,” she said. “And it sends the wrong message to other world leaders who are looking for the opportunity to be normalized.”
On balance, said Johns Hopkins’ White, he thinks the U.S. investment in India will pay dividends.
“India doesn’t have to be allied or even closely aligned with the United States in order to be useful in helping to establish a favorable balance of power in Asia — an Asia that’s not dominated by a rising China,” he said.
Gerry Shih in New Delhi contributed to this report.