- Unlike Modi and Trump, Modi and Biden represent a radically different kettle of fish for each other altogether.
The Biden administration, still in its infancy, has already had to deal with its first headache involving India. It is a minor one, but significant in that it signals the kind of issue that may become a sticking point in bilateral relations between the countries. Meena Harris, niece of Kamala Harris, recently drew the ire of the Indian government, the Hindu Right, and pro-Modi trolls on social media, first, for her support for the ongoing farmers’ protests in India and, subsequently, for her criticism of the arrest of 21-year-old Indian activist, Disha Ravi, by the Indian state for allegedly conspiring with Greta Thunberg to undermine Indian sovereignty.
The White House specified that Meena Harris was speaking in her personal capacity, making it clear that the fact of her being a relative of the American vice-president was incidental. The statement sent India’s jingoistic media outlets, like Republic TV, into a state of frenzied delight, proceeding, as they did, to frame a fairly innocuous comment from the Biden administration as a resounding victory for Modi.
Though Modi was as generous in his borderline-inappropriate hugs with Obama as with Trump, the recently deposed reality TV star was much more of a kindred spirit to the Indian prime minister. Both Trump and Modi are narcissistic populists, autocrats for whom democracy is merely one more instrument to deploy for the purpose of staying in power at virtually any cost. Modi’s relation to Hindu nationalism is eerily similar to Trump’s relationship to white supremacy. Both have fed off and, in turn, have fed majoritarian and anti-minority sentiment, in the bargaining eviscerating democratic institutions in India and the U.S. respectively.
Modi and Biden represent a radically different kettle of fish for each other altogether. While the usual cliches about India and the U.S. being the world’s largest democracies and, hence, natural allies are likely to keep flowing freely over the next few years, Biden will have his work cut out for him on the Indian front. With precious little bandwidth, as he seeks to repair the damage wrought by Trump with regard to America’s standing in the world, the new American president will have to be strategic in how he effectively manages Modi and his government.
Yet, Biden will still be dealing from a position of strength. At the end of the day, notwithstanding India’s geopolitical significance as a counterweight to China or the temptations of its vast markets for American corporations, the U.S. still holds the upper hand in any dealing or negotiation between the countries.
Recall that Modi capitulated to Trump’s threats about blocking products from India in response to a proposed ban on hydroxy chloroquine, though much of the Indian media spun the concession as a great diplomatic resolution achieved by two great men. And, despite all their rants against America, most pro-Modi trolls would happily trade their mothers and their first-borns for a green card or even a temporary work visa.
The trick for the Biden administration, then, is, first, to pick its battles and, second, to let Modi claim victory, with regard to matters on which they seek to effect change or even send a strong signal. Modi will not, under any circumstances, reverse his decisions on Kashmir.
The U.S., with its long history of imperial invasions, subversion of democratically elected governments the world over, and general interference in the affairs of any number of nations, holds very little moral authority to speak on Kashmir in any case. But the Biden administration can, and likely will, draw attention to the pandemic of attacks on religious minorities that has plagued India since 2014, the clampdown on critics and dissenters, and the free hand given to rioting mobs of caste Hindu vigilantes that have terrorized Muslims and Dalits in Modi’s India.
On these issues, the Biden administration may get some purchase by appealing to Modi’s ego and allowing him to present a concession as an act of statesmanship. The Argentinian writer, Borges, once observed of Shakespeare that he was all things to all men.
This is also, more or less, Modi’s view of himself. The myth surrounding Modi, after all, is that he is a political, literary, scientific, and sartorial genius. Indeed, even as Modi publicly performs his devotion to Savarkar, the founding father of Hindutva, at home in India, the prime minister also makes sure to pay his respects to Gandhi statues during every single one of his jaunts abroad.
Modi wants to be — and to exceed — Savarkar, Nehru, Gandhi, and Ambedkar — and his occasional noises about Indian unity, his declarations of anguish at assaults on Dalits, and the like speak to this desire for respect in the Indian and international community. The U.S. will not lose much by taking a firm stand on the violations of minority rights or crackdowns on dissent that have become an unfortunate part of everyday life in India. It will also likely not move the needle much but may manage to compel the government to tone down its viciousness while allowing Modi to present himself as a statesman acting in the best interests of all Indians.
In contrast to the confrontational, petulant, and isolationist tone adopted by Trump, the exercise of American soft power, in Joseph Nye’s formulation, will offer Biden other options. By taking steps to ease the path of Indian migrants toward obtaining F1 student visas, H1-B worker visas, and green cards, Biden can send a clear message that he intends to undo the naked anti-Indian racism encouraged by Trump acolytes like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
Similarly, making it easier for spouses of migrants to get visas to work in the U.S. will buy the Biden administration significant political capital. That can be cashed in behind the scenes for assurances from India that it will practice the universal values of equality, freedom, and dignity that it claims to embody both as an ancient civilization and as a modern nation-state. It is not an unreasonable ask, after all, that India should treat its minorities as it expects Indian and Indian-origin minorities to be treated in the U.S.
On more intractable issues, pressure from the U.S. on Pakistan to rein in support for terrorist groups will also get Biden more diplomatic cards to cash in. The satirical Pakistani Twitter account DrMarjorlyPhD (unfortunately dormant since 2019) had once observed in a series of tweets that the U.S. treats Pakistan as the spoilt son who has to be appeased lest he create more havoc while India is expected to be the responsible older brother who does not get goodies because, well, he doesn’t need incentives to behave.
Whether or not there is merit in the analogy, Modi’s bellicose stance toward Pakistan, which helped entrench his popularity among a wide swathe of Indians despite being militarily ineffectual, may also empower him to get the U.S. to do more in favor of India in the region. Modi’s actions may have derailed the track-2 diplomacy efforts initiated by the UPA but they have reaped him rich political rewards. Getting the U.S. to lean more on Pakistan will, similarly, help him consolidate his own power, and in return he may be willing to act on American suggestions that serve the interests of the latter.
On other matters, such as trade, Biden is likely to not find India any more or less troublesome than earlier administrations. Potential areas of conflict, as seen recently, include the extent to which global behemoths like Amazon can claim a presence in India or the agency of social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter to interpret Indian laws on free speech in resisting Indian government pressure to censor or ban accounts or share information. These corporations, given their enormous clout, can negotiate on their own steam, without such conflicts necessarily complicating bilateral relations between the countries. The big social media corporations usually give in to the demands of the Indian state anyway.
And, finally, as known to every foreigner who has dealt with India, whether European traders fawning over Mughal emperors or the British who organized darbars in honor of rajas and nawabs, Biden and his administration should heap lots and lots of praise on everything Indian, whether it be palak paneer, masala chai, haldi dudh, neem, yoga, ghee, bhangra, software programmers, NASA employees, and godmen who shuttle between Silicon Valley and the subcontinent.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. He is the author, most recently, of “The Gita in a Global World: Ethical Action in an Age of Flux” (Westland Books, forthcoming 2021) and “The Virtual Hindu Rashtra: Saffron Nationalism and New Media” (HarperCollins 2019). He is the co-founder and co-host of the IndiaExplained podcast (www.soundcloud.com/indiaexplained).