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Is the U.S. Legitimizing Electoral Autocratization of India by Inviting Prime Minister Modi for a State Visit?

Is the U.S. Legitimizing Electoral Autocratization of India by Inviting Prime Minister Modi for a State Visit?

  • My vain hope is that the U.S. foreign policy experts would work towards creating a positive externality out of this State Visit of Modi by holding him responsible for the blatant human rights violations under his leadership.

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

The moment I read about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s State visit to the U.S., it bothered me. Reels of religious-based hate crimes across India, starting from the Gujarat riots in 2002, massacres of Muslims, the lynching of lower caste communities, and religious polarization of people even in the friendliest of neighborhoods flashed before me like a whirlwind. Modi’s undeterred ability to cleanse any infinitesimal voices of dissent against him or his government through political arrests and detention of rights defenders is infamous, while his public relations campaigns circulate sanitized versions of every crime, exist as a mere mockery of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in India. Yet, I tried to perceive the invitation by President Biden to Modi for a U.S. State visit through an objective lens. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the elected representative of India, the largest democracy in the world. My effort to give Modi the benefit of the doubt was immediately quashed by the varied statistics and ratings given to India by multiple global organizations based on its performance on fundamental freedoms and rights, which go thus:

  1. Global Freedom Status

India is ranked 66 out of 100 countries on the ‘Freedom in the world’ rating by Freedom House. The country falls in the “partly free” category. Political rights of citizens is ranked at 33 out of 40 countries and civil rights at 33 out of 60 countries.

  1. World Press Freedom status: 

India is ranked 161st among the 180 countries according to the World Press Freedom Index 2023 published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

  1. Global Internet Freedom status

India is ranked 51/100 on ‘Freedom on the net’ ratings conducted by Freedom House. It falls in the “partly free” category.

  1. Global Electoral Democracy Index:

India ranks 108th in the Electoral Democracy Index of the Democracy Report 2023 by V-Dem Institute. India is categorized as one of the top 10 “Electoral autocracies” in the world. 

  1. Academic Freedom Index:

India is among 22 countries and territories out of 179 in the world, where academic freedom has been reduced significantly than 10 years ago.’ The report states that “India’s decline in academic freedom is closely associated with the rapidly accelerating autocratization”.  India, along with China, Afghanistan and Myanmar, are identified as countries where politics has influenced the decline in the development of the academic sector.

  1. Human rights and rule of law index

According to the Global Economy that researched and studied 200 countries, India was rated at 7.4 for the Human Rights and Rule of Law index (0 – highest & 10 – lowest). 

  1. Fundamental Rights Index

India’s ranking in the Rule of Law index stood at 77 out of 140 countries, a consistent decline since 2015.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended the U.S. Department of State-designate India as a ‘country of particular concern’ (CPC) based on the severe violations of religious freedoms. India is also one of the fewest countries that openly support Russia by being the largest consumer of its energy, which technically finances Russia in the Ukraine war. India has not even once criticized Russia for the Ukraine war. Birds of the same feather flock together, I guess. Yet, here we are, rolling out the red carpet and gun salutes to the elected autocrat Narendra Modi so that the US can regain its global economic position through compromised partnerships!

The White House Historical Association tells us that State Visits are a key part of presidential diplomacy helping to develop and maintain relationships with other countries.” In the terminology of diplomatic visits, there are different categorizations of visits it seems. A Head of State can visit the U.S. under an “official working visit” or “Work visit”, which is primarily to conduct business like negotiations or discussions. However, it does not include any of those fancy fanfare events like the White House Dinner, Arrival ceremony, Exchange of gifts or not even the Pentagon arrival ceremony with 19 Gun Salute, if it is in the “Work visit” category. 

On the other hand, if a Head of State visits the US at the invitation of the US President for a “State Visit” or “Official visit”, the landscape of fanfare is quite Disney movie-like. The grand entry to the country, the grand arrival ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, the grandiose White House dinner, stay at the Blair House and all the stardom that the US President and the country bestows upon their special guest, the Head of State.  

The question here is not whether Modi’s palate deserves the most sophisticated cuisine that the White House Chef would lay out. The real concern is when Modi steps on the US ground as the President’s Special Guest for his State Visit, what would be going on in the mind of the former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who spent sleepless nights conceptualizing the super dusty international doc called “UDHR, yes the “Universal Declaration of Human rights” to uphold the dignity of human beings on earth.

I hear all those whispers from the intellectual political strategists in D.C. to the ill-advised, idealistic mortals. Politics is a strategy game, my friend. Don’t you see the uprising of the global threat today of imperialistic, communist, and capitalist China!! We need the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion people who has the education, technological sophistication, consumer market potential, and military might along with the “democracy” tag to be a checkmate against China!! Of course, our hearts bleed for all those massacred Muslims in India as well as for the student activists from the top educational institutions who are imprisoned. It is shameful indeed that a good majority of the non-profit organizations that fought for civil and political rights and stood as the check and balance of abuse of power do not exist anymore. Can you believe that a long list of staunch activists has been stripped out of their independent voices through fabricated cases against them or by obliging them to exile? It is astonishing that ordinary person withholds expressing their honest political opinion in their own homes, least on social media. The cleansing of independent voices that followed their passion and patriotism to uphold the democratic fabric of India against the nationalistic suppression of fundamental rights has become the norm in India. It is not even news anymore. It is a mere statistic of another countdown of the might-less!! The crux of the matter is that the US political strategists have chosen to perceive Indian human rights violations under its elected Head of State as a slight oversight that still doesn’t amount to the threat that China is!! 

I understand how nuanced foreign policy must be to manage the diverse political layers, and cultural and socioeconomic differences while balancing national ideologies and domestic constituents. Therefore, let us rewind and go back in time to look at our political past and a few other foreign policy choices the U.S. has made in the past. 

See Also

The U.S. played a major role in the creation of modern Iran with its ardent support to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1950s. Between the 1950s to 70s, Iran and the U.S. were allies that contributed towards substantial financial and political reforms in Iran including women’s right to vote, their political participation and right to run for parliamentary elections. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. When Shah Pahlavi started bringing out his dictatorial tendencies to suppress voices of dissent and national discomfort at the fast pace of modernization, the US had substantial soft power with Iran to pace its political trajectory. Sadly, the US chose not to use its ethical voice.  Today, fundamentalism and blatant violation of women’s rights, political and civil rights in Iran have become beyond repair.

If we think about Cuba, the US foreign policy condemned Fidel Castro and his communist and dictatorial oppression in the country for decades. Yet, we hardly spend any time discussing his predecessor Fulgencio Batista. The US supported Batista to overthrow an elected government and take power owing to his alignment with the US during the cold war. Nonetheless, when Batista dived into dictatorship and oppression of his citizens, the US overlooked it while focusing on foreign investments in Cuba in the 50s. Castro was risen by the oppressed Cuban citizens as a voice against the dictator Batista. Had the U.S. been steadfast about fundamental democratic principles, it wouldn’t have thrown a blind eye towards the Batista regime, which consequently led to the domino effect of dictatorship under Fidel Castro.

Auguste Pinochet in Chile is another Head of State that the US supported as a part of foreign policy to advance democracy against communism. The US supported the military regime with bilateral aid and loans. Pinochet’s regime tortured its citizens and indulged in massacres of all voices of dissent and suppressed all forms of freedom of expression. He is viewed as one of the cruelest dictators in the world. The political strategists during the Nixon era are morally responsible for leading Chileans toward such a political catastrophe.

The list of Frankensteins created or supported by the U.S. foreign policy seems long, with names like Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea, Suharto of Indonesia among many others. 

As a nation, the US has had enough learning experiences to evolve forward.  Aren’t we on a slippery slope when we tread along the same path that lets history repeat itself? Should the US foreign policy remain stagnant by continuing to create compromising partnerships with Heads of State and governments that represent “illiberal democracies” and “electoral autocracies”? How does the U.S. hope to position the country in this polarized world in terms of moral leadership, ethical integrity and fundamental democratic governance? Glorifying Heads of State with bloody history like PM Modi with a State visit legitimizes the electoral autocratization process that is intensifying in India. The emphasis on a fundamentalistic Hindutva nation based on populist sentiments and consequent religious alienation and massacres of minorities like Muslims, Christians, lower caste communities and others is a harsh reality in India. Such a permissive approach to foreign policy that the US undertakes undermines the nation’s foundational principles rooted in fundamental freedoms and human dignity.  

Alas! My vain hope is that the U.S. foreign policy experts would work towards creating a positive externality out of this State Visit of Modi by holding him responsible for the blatant human rights violations under his leadership while building a bridge with the largest democracy and the world’s most populous nation.

Litcy Kurisinkal is a Human Rights Research Consultant. She has worked as the External Research Support for the UN Special Rapporteur on Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children. She has worked on a range of human rights issues like civil and political rights, children’s rights, labor rights, migrant rights, health rights and the protection of street children. She is a Public Policy graduate from Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. She was awarded the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy Paper Prize in 2013 from Harvard Kennedy School. 

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  • Sickening, gratuitous negativity. And an insult to the Indian people, who have twice voted for the BJP and Modi in free and fair elections. And those so called rankings the author mentions, are all bogus, trumped up, and grossly uninformed. They are made by some pompous, ignorant people sitting in offices in the US and Europe, looking town on developing countries for whatever dishonourable reason.

  • Global rankings are not perfect but they do indicate the trend. People assigning them have no reason to be biased against India. The methods used by them are in public domain for evaluation. Still a lot of Indians remain in denial.

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