Indian Rope Trick?: The US thinks India is no more than an anti-China bulwark while Modi remakes Asia

Binoy Kampmark

7 Nov 2023

Since coming to power, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become the great wooer of powers and seducer of the impressionable. At home, he has ridden the beast of nationalism, infusing it with a sectarian Hindu ethnic intolerance of non-Hindu Indians that has come to be known as Hindutva. Abroad, his fittings tend to be different. Nationalism, on the international stage, is shorn of its religious dimension or ethnic barb. Here the bigot goes into hiding; he becomes Mr India, modern, technologically savvy, commercially astute, nationalist and even tolerant.

On his June visit to the United States, Modi was striking a hot iron. The United States, galumphing and shortsighted of late, is engaging in a foreign policy described by former US Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers as ‘a bit lonely’. ‘There’s a growing acceptance of fragmentation, and—maybe even more troubling—I think there’s a growing sense that ours may not be the best fragment to be associated with’, he explained on Bloomberg Television’s Wall Street Week in April this year.

It is the sort of loneliness that has sidelined US foreign policy in the Global South even as it huffs about an international rules-based order it helped to brutally shape. In not comprehending the manner of such fragmentation, US foreign policy-makers have missed a beat—including the realignment of such traditionally hostile powers as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indian officials also continue to put much stock in their relationship with Moscow. The latter has supplied and outfitted the Indian military for decades, and Russian oil has also become increasingly important.

What matters to Biden and his inner circle above all else is the desire to box in China, clipping its wings along the way. Its leader has also come in for a reputational drubbing. According to the occasionally aware US president, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is a dictator much embarrassed by not knowing what his own agencies are doing in terms of surveillance. New Delhi has, to that end, become an indispensable feature of Washington’s anti-China policy. ‘Both geographically as well as strategically and economically, India has become a linchpin in this framework’ of containing China, suggested Milan Vaishnav of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. India-China tensions have also, on the surface, helped. Border disputes between the two most populous countries remain a fairly continuous feature.

For that reason, the security forum of the Quad, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan, is seen as a bulwark, restraining China and maintaining the status quo. This much can be gathered by this year’s 20 May joint statement from the Quad leaders: ‘We seek a region where no country dominates and no country is dominated—one where all countries are free from coercion, and can exercise their agency to determine their futures’.

That counter, however, is seen as subordinate to maintaining US supremacy under the lecturing guise of the ‘rules-based order’. Such poses are simply not acceptable in either the Modi worldview or those of Indian policy-makers. India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has opined with some severity that Washington’s power is, at best, ‘a transient moment of American unipolarity’. The ‘end of history’ thesis propounded by the hubristic Francis Fukuyama in the dying days of the Cold War was stubbornly, and blindly, ‘Eurocentric’. The urgings of nationalism have long since disproved it.

Whatever the strategic and diplomatic chatterers choose to believe in Western capitals, the globe is now frictionally multipolar, governed by the dictates of trade, connectivity and technology. India has had to, in Jaishankar’s view, move beyond the ‘political romanticism’ associated with its previous leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru. Jaishankar advocates, instead, a morality-free engagement with other powers. Notions of friendship and alliances should be ditched in favour of ‘frenemies’, where ‘even partners will always strive for better terms of transaction’ and differences would merely be managed and pragmatically settled: ‘In a world of more naked self-interest, nations will do what they have to do with less pretence’.

Modi’s June discussions with Biden kept up appearances, and convenient hypocrisies. ‘Together’, Biden stated at the arrival ceremony on 22 June, ‘India and the United States are working closely together on everything from ending poverty and expanding access to healthcare to addressing climate change to tackling food and energy insecurity stoked by Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine’. Cringingly, he went on to speak about both countries sharing a belief in equal protections of the law, freedom of expression, religious pluralism and the diversity of their respective peoples. Modi the promoter of Hindutva must have had, at this point, an inward chuckle.

The joint statement from the two countries is soapy in affirming ‘a vision of the United States and India as among the closest partners in the world—a partnership of democracies looking into the 21st century with hope, ambition, and confidence’. But with the ceremonial fluffiness out of the way, the content looks, in line with Jaishankar’s thinking, increasingly transactional. The statement, for instance, is heavy on technology as the aphrodisiac in this relationship, manifested by the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology announced in January 2023: ‘The leaders recommitted the United States and India to fostering an open, accessible and secure technology ecosystem, based on mutual confidence and trust that reinforces our shared values and democratic institutions’.

In his address to Congress, Modi spruiked the notion that New Delhi and Washington had forged ‘a defining partnership of this century’, glorifying the advances made by the Indian economy and technology sector, including heroic strivings in healthcare: ‘A lot has changed since I came here seven summers ago but a lot has remained the same—like our commitment to deepen the friendship between India and the United States’.

When it came to describing India—and here Modi’s message was on-brand—a strained relationship with the truth evinced itself: ‘India’s democratic values [are such that] there’s absolutely no discrimination neither on the basis of caste, creed, age or any kind of geographic location’. The same, jaw dropping theme was repeated regarding women. ‘India’s vision is not just the development which benefits women—it is of women-led development where women lead the journey of progress’—but not, it would seem, when such women protest against the policies of the ruling BJP Party, whether they be those taking a stance against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) or those in the Satyagraha protest movement who took issue with potentially crushing 2020 agricultural laws that were eventually repealed. In such instances, as Deepanshu Mohan and Shreeya Bhayana remarked in The Wire on 2 June 2023, police brutality, violence and abuse abound, a situation ‘normalised to the extent where “such incidents” hardly evoke any mentions of support or acts of solidarity from others in the fraternity’.

The same theme can be found amongst the intelligentsia and academic classes in India, where political interference and persecution have become the norm. Academics such as Professor Gokarakonda Naga have been imprisoned for life on terrorism charges. Resorting to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Sedition has become a regime favourite. On 15 January 2021, an undersecretary in the Ministry of Education issued an ‘office memorandum’ titled ‘Revised Guidelines for holding online/virtual Conferences, Seminars, Training, etc’. The memorandum made the point that any international online event must receive government approval to ensure that its content does not fall foul of national security, or concern Jammu Kashmir’s or India’s internal matters. To this can be added an altering of the country’s syllabi—the exclusion of the teaching of Darwinian evolution, for instance—by the University Grant Commission and the appointment of Modi sympathisers to vice-chancellorships and professorial chairs.

In all of the foamy self-congratulatory rituals, it was hard to forget that Modi was banned from travelling to the United States in 2005 when he occupied the post of Gujarat Chief Minister. The decision was based on his failure to prevent particularly vicious riots in his state in 2002 that led to over a thousand, mainly Muslim deaths. The US State Department’s reasoning for denying him a visa lay in the International Religious Freedom Act, a 1998 law passed by Congress designed, in principle, to combat religious persecution. On getting wind that the then Chief Minister was intending to visit the US, a number of Indian-American groups, including the Indian American Muslim Council, lobbied members of Congress and a number of US authorities. Their efforts proved remarkably successful. Katrina Lantos Swett, Vice Chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom—a body created by the 1998 statute—explained at the time that Modi would not be ‘granted the privilege of a US visa because of the very serious doubts that remain and hang over Modi relative to his role in the horrific events of 2002 in Gujarat’.

During the course of his prime ministerial tenure, Modi and the BJP have set about ensuring that those willing to write and speak out about the authorities’ complicity in the 2002 riots, and in continuing acts of repression, will be dealt with. The activist Teesta Setalvad, for instance, was charged with ‘criminal conspiracy, forgery and placing false evidence in court to frame innocent people’ regarding the 2002 riots.

In September 2014, with Modi as prime minister, his rehabilitation from reactionary nationalist to balanced statesman gathered pace. He attended a packed reception at Madison Square Garden, dined with President Barack Obama in Washington and addressed the UN General Assembly. A spokesperson for the North American Sikh Alliance, Jasjit Singh Hundal, was sharp in his warning that Modi should not be ‘treated with such great fanfare during his visit to the United States’, urging ‘great caution’: ‘We feel that the fact that a man with his track record has become head of state should be a cause of alarm, trigger scrutiny rather than entitle him to a free pass’.

Not all was fanfare and roses. While Modi was wowing his hosts, the American Justice Centre took it upon itself to file a civil suit against the visiting PM in the US District Court of the Southern District of New York, demanding a jury trial. Allegations were made under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 and the Alien Tort Statute ‘based on acts while Modi was acting as ‘Chief Minister’ of the state of Gujarat in 2002’. More specifically, the complaint charged Modi with committing ‘crimes against humanity’, endorsing ‘extra-judicial killings’ and torture and ‘inflicting mental and physical trauma’ on victims. But the most telling flourish in the charges was the claim that the ‘communal riots’ responsible for so many deaths were ‘nothing short of attempted genocide against a population persecuted for their religious beliefs’.

In January 2015, the case was dismissed on the basis that Modi, as head of state, had foreign official immunity: ‘A sitting head of state’s immunity from jurisdiction is based on the Executive Branch’s determination of official immunity without regard to the specific conduct alleged.’

On the occasion of Modi’s second visit, opposition was present but smothered. It seemed a confounding spectacle: the US President and First Lady Jill Biden going out of their way to host Modi for both private and state dinners, and going along to ‘skilling’ and ‘technology’ events even as a number from Biden’s own party expressed chagrin.

Biden had already shown himself to be distinctly oleaginous to his Indian counterpart in May, when they met at the G7 and Quad gatherings being held in Japan. ‘You are causing me a real problem’, he jested with Modi. ‘Next month, we will have a dinner for you in Washington. Everyone in the whole country wants to come. I have run out of tickets. Do you think I’m kidding? Ask my team. I am getting phone calls from people I have never heard of before. Everyone from movie actors to relatives. You are too popular’.

Despite Biden’s attempt to smother dissent, a gaggle of Democrats would not come to heel. Democratic House Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and Kweisi Mfume preferred boycotting Modi’s address to Congress. A statement by Tlaib, Bush, Omar and Jamaal Bowman noting the Indian PM’s role in the bloody Gujarat riots also noted his government’s appetite for targeting ‘Muslims and other religious minorities’, enabling ‘Hindu nationalist violence’, undermining democracy, targeting journalists and dissidents, and suppressing criticism via internet shutdowns and censorship.

Modi’s June 2023 visit to the US will go down as a striking display of delusion and deception. In India, the deluded Biden administration sees an ally who presides over a democracy which is in fact corroding in the acid bath of religious-ethnic politics and corruption. It has overlooked the less savoury, and frankly more dangerous, characteristics of the Indian Prime Minister. The ever-deceptive Modi, for his part, has managed to convince his doddery host that they are friends rather than frenemies—partners in a committed relationship rather than a transactional one based on naked self-interest.

The ‘Quad’, Unlikley Allies and a World Undone

Guy Rundle, 2022

Globalisation has created a world that is safe, until it very much isn’t. The specific form of globalisation we have…compels the West to seek to maintain a dominance it can no longer enforce. 

About the author

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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