- Despite their mutual interest in containing China and strengthening bilateral business ties, there’s not much convergence in the world view of the two leaders.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit the United States on a State visit on June 22. This is a rare occurrence in that a State visit is the highest expression of diplomatic interaction between leaders when they come to Washington. In the levels of protocol, it is followed by official visits, official working visits, working visits, guest-of-government visits, and private visits.
While in the U.S., Modi will address a joint session of both houses of Congress, an invitation accorded to a visiting leader, and something he had done before during the Trump administration. This visit is somewhat different from other visits of both Modi and other Indian leaders. For starters, it is only the third state visit by an Indian leader – the other two were by Indian President Radhakrishnan and later by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – all other visits have been official or other/lesser categories.
Secondly, Modi’s visit comes at a time when the U.S.-India relationship is somewhat strained over a lack of agreement on foreign policy issues. Finally, neither side – U.S. Democrats led by President Biden or India’s BJP led by Modi – is happy with the other on domestic issues in the other country; Americans are concerned over India’s slide into authoritarianism and increasing attacks on minorities, while the BJP is concerned with the passage of legislation that is making caste discrimination a category in certain states.
Necessity, however, makes for strange bedfellows. And the convergence of U.S. and Indian interests is the rise of China as a superpower. For India, a longstanding dispute over Tibet (73 years since China’s invasion of Tibet, but 61 years since the Sino-Indian conflict) and certain Indian border areas claimed by China, create a need to balance the neighbor’s power with superpower help. The United States is equally interested in building a stable coalition to prevent China from expanding further – it is attempting to do so with Japan and Australia as the other partners of the Quad.
A second inducement for the U.S. to cultivate New Delhi is the Indian market. Since President Bill Clinton evocatively described India as a “Big Emerging Market” and American companies salivated at the prospect of 250 million middle-class Indian consumers, the U.S. has sought a greater trade relationship with India. The famous Bush-era “nuclear technology for mangoes” deal allowed India to escape punitive sanctions over its nuclear arsenal (reconciled by the U.S. since India followed global safety and export-control measures), get access to hitherto forbidden U.S. nuclear technology, but in return, the U.S. did not manage to gain greater entry to the Indian market.
Similar ventures during the Obama and Trump administrations yielded little, even in the field of defense sales, where India is expected to be a big spender to modernize its armed forces to confront Pakistan and China. This economic relationship has not yet taken off for two reasons. On the one hand, India’s economy is still restricted to outsiders (more so than many competitors including China). At another level, Indians have been savvy consumers, refusing to be locked into a defense relationship with the U.S., which is considered an unreliable partner (it has levied sanctions and restrictions on the purchase of sensitive equipment on trading partners, as Pakistan can well attest). Moreover, India has displayed a penchant for playing the global market and utilizing the opportunities coming its way due to international events such as the Ukraine war and sanctions on Russia – which have allowed India to purchase and resell cheap Russian oil.
Still, the fear of a rising China, whose strong-arm tactics against India and Taiwan have alarmed neighbors and rivals, may bring the two countries together. While India’s trade with the U.S. is just about half of its trade with China, it would like to break free of China (a long-stated Modi aim). This is particularly true about technology.
An unrelated issue is the I2U2 group (Israel, India, U.S., U.A.E.) which the U.S. has brought together as a coalition against Iran, but also as a trade grouping by which the Middle East is connected to India. The group has added Saudi Arabia to its members, but the recent Iran-Saudi truce may have set things back a bit. However, what is clearly visible is that all these U.S. measures count India as an indispensable part of the American “containment” policy toward China and a necessary part of a U.S. alliance.
The promised relationship, however, is bedeviled by problems – of the human rights variety. Even as Biden underlines the Ukraine war as a fight between democracy and authoritarianism, India’s record of human rights violations by the BJP government and against minorities grows daily. In recent years, Muslims have been harassed and barred from entering certain neighborhoods, famous Muslim place names have been altered (Allahabad to Prayag and Aligarh district to Harigarh), and secondary school history textbooks are deleting the mention of the Mughal dynasty and Hindu extremism.
The recent inauguration of a new Parliament building in India is considered unnecessary by the opposition and its ceremony showing a turbaned Modi holding a scepter being feted by Brahmin priests is redolent of Hindu coronations and invited public and international opprobrium. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the largest opposition party – the Indian National Congress – has been accused of defamation and unseated from Parliament. And White House officials have said that President Biden reserves the right to raise these issues with Modi during his visit.
This is a far cry from the days of the Trump administration, when Modi’s visit resulted in the two leaders addressing an Indian American rally called Howdy Modi and Trump paraphrasing a Modi campaign slogan “Ab Ki Baar, Trump Sarkar” (this time a Trump administration) targeting Indian Americans. Of course, Trump also made clear his reluctance to disavow white supremacy and considered Indian immigrants as problematic.
In conclusion, this is a moment of test for Indo-American ties. However, don’t expect too much from the state visit as neither side is willing to give up much. India will likely scorn U.S. warnings on human rights violations and continue its longstanding relationship with Russia and the U.S. will be hesitant to improve ties unless India commits to a defense relationship (purchasing American weaponry) or broadening the current economic one. What nudges them together is the specter of the Chinese dragon, what pulls them apart is the fundamentally different nature of the two governments – the one liberal and inclusive, the other authoritarian and exclusive. But there is room for an understanding to build cooperation for the future.
Milind Thakar is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Indianapolis. He is a Public Voices Fellow at the Op-Ed Project.