India’s illiberal turn won’t shake its relationship with the United States | Daily News


India’s illiberal turn won’t shake its relationship with the United States

Indian National Congress workers shout slogans against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest in Amritsar on February 26, 2020.
Indian National Congress workers shout slogans against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest in Amritsar on February 26, 2020.

Mobs roamed New Delhi’s streets as Trump and Modi talked, but the partnership remains robust.

Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India has come and gone. As expected, it was a grand spectacle. The optics of the U.S. president and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking before tens of thousands of cheering supporters in a cavernous cricket stadium won’t soon be forgotten. Yet also as expected, the trip produced no major announcements; last-ditch efforts to finalize a trade deal before Trump’s arrival were unsuccessful.

In fact, the biggest headline generated during the trip was the deadly religious violence that convulsed areas of New Delhi barely 10 miles from where Trump and Modi were meeting. It was the worst communal strife the capital has seen in years.

Critics argue that the United States should not hedge its strategic bets with an increasingly authoritarian and chauvinistic Indian government, especially given that the Modi administration is aggressively carrying out Hindu-nationalist policies that discriminate against the country’s large Muslim minority. This policy is playing out in an increasingly intolerant and violent political and social environment.

This volatile state of affairs was on stark display during Trump’s brief time in New Delhi, when the capital was shaken by riots for several days. Armed Hindu mobs roamed the streets with impunity and attacked Muslims while the police—who in New Delhi report to the national government—often stood by doing nothing. Muslim mobs staged attacks as well, and both Hindus and Muslims died. There were also reports of mobs asking people to prove their religion. By Feb. 27, the death toll from the unrest was at nearly 40 people.

The unrest began soon after a politician from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) warned of consequences if police didn’t clear the streets of peaceful protesters, many of them Muslims opposed to the government’s new citizenship law, within three days. During the height of the riots, video emerged of another local BJP politician marching through the streets flanked by supporters who were chanting Hindu nationalist slogans, using a profanity to refer to people who had attacked police, and calling for them to be shot. Until issuing a brief statement on Twitter on Feb. 26, several days after the riots began, calling for peace and unity, Modi’s response to the unrest—as has so often been the case following communal and political violence in recent months—was radio silence.

However, don’t expect this recent unrest, and New Delhi’s turn away from the secular and pluralistic traditions that have long undergirded Indian democracy, to have an impact on U.S. thinking on the relationship. The U.S. government doesn’t use democratic principles or respect for human rights as criteria for its strategic partners (think Israel and Saudi Arabia today, or the anti-communist dictatorships of previous years). More broadly, rights and democracy concerns don’t drive contemporary U.S. thinking on foreign policy, especially under the Trump administration.

U.S. officials may give lip service to the importance of shared democratic values in U.S.-India relations, but at the end of the day, it’s the cold, hard shared strategic interests that count the most. Unsurprisingly, while U.S. officials do express concerns privately about what is playing out domestically in India, they express no desire to rethink the relationship (on Feb. 27, the U.S. State Department issued a mildly worded reaction to the riots, calling on “all parties to maintain peace, refrain from violence, and respect the right of freedom of assembly.”).

In fact, Trump’s two days in India underscore just how robust the partnership is today.

Consider, first of all, that a notoriously transactional president averse to long-distance travel flew more than 7,000 miles for a state visit that didn’t include a major deal. Yes, Modi won Trump over with promises of pomp and pageantry. But that’s not a tactic that the savvy Indian premier uses with just any world leader. Modi is selective in his deployment of spectacular events. He uses them to bolster his ties with leaders of countries that hold strategic significance for India. Think of his splashy summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the red carpet treatment he extends to his annual Republic Day chief guests—which in recent years have included the presidents of Brazil, South Africa, France, and the United States.

The U.S.-India relationship, messy during the Cold War when Washington was allied with India’s rival Pakistan and New Delhi was nonaligned, began strengthening in the early 1990s as India embraced economic liberalization. But the relationship has really taken off since the early 2000s. Shared strategic concerns about China’s rise and Pakistan-based terrorism have generated bipartisan support for deep partnership in both capitals.

- Foreign Policy 

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