Out of all of Donald Trump’s world-leader friends, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the quickest to offer his congratulations to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for winning the 2020 U.S. presidential election. India’s ruling, conservative Bharatiya Janata Party smartly adjusted as Biden started coming out ahead in election polls and soon fully embraced the incoming administration change. Modi may have been infamously and publicly chummy with Trump, but his quick pivot made sense. While India and the U.S. have historically had a rocky-at-best relationship, Modi worked well with both Barack Obama and Biden the last time Democrats held the executive office. Plus, Harris, who made history as the United States’ first Indian American vice president, is very popular in India, especially in her mother’s ancestral region of Tamil Nadu. So, despite some vocal ideological opposition to the Biden-Harris ticket from Modi’s right-wing followers at home and abroad, and the fact that Biden has made combating authoritarian movements like Modi’s a central theme of his foreign policy, the Indian leader had good reason to roll out the welcome mat.
For both countries, the relationship is just too important to let slide. After decades of tense neutrality and nuclear fear following India’s independence, the 21st century saw the subcontinent embraced by U.S. officials from both parties—including incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden in 2006—as an essential partner against terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, an emerging small-d democratic rival to China’s regional and global economic dominance, and an essential trading partner. India and the U.S. also established military and defense partnerships, and hammered out global climate negotiations and trade agreements. Bits of animosity have flared up here and there, and Modi and Biden are not likely to have the same bro-y relationship that Modi and Trump did, but it’s clear the two countries will remain strategic partners for the foreseeable future.
Biden has already made Modi’s administration a priority. The two leaders spoke on the phone shortly after the U.S. election results were finalized, and Modi tweeted congratulations at both Biden and Harris on Inauguration Day and again in February. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with India’s foreign minister that month, while the president used his first international summit to videoconference with Modi as well as leaders from Australia and Japan. About a month afterward, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as part of the first overseas trip conducted by any of Biden’s Cabinet members, visited India to meet with Modi as well as the country’s defense minister and national security adviser.
What do these countries have so much to talk about so soon after the Trump era? In a release about the Feb. 8 Modi call, Biden outlined what he considered to be their mutual agenda:
The United States and India will work closely together to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, renew their partnership on climate change, rebuild the global economy in a way that benefits the people of both countries, and stand together against the scourge of global terrorism. The leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.
The most interesting points here concern the “free and open Indo-Pacific” as well as the so-called Quad. The former refers to the region encompassing South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania, which used to be more commonly known as the Asia-Pacific region. The Quad is an informal partnership between the U.S. and three nations from that area: India, Japan, and Australia. Those two terms encompass structures of resistance toward a mutual nemesis: China. The shift from “Asia” to “Indo” underlines this rhetorical focus, while the Quad consists of the four most powerful nations in the region not named China.
The world’s largest country has skirmished with India for decades, over border disputes, trade, and political and cultural influence within the Asian continent. But the stakes have become much higher in recent years. The fatal territorial clashes between the Chinese and Indian militaries in the Himalayas, which may have also escalated into dangerous cyberattacks on Mumbai’s electricity grid, demonstrate this—not to mention China’s support for India’s mortal enemy Pakistan, which had its own renewed skirmishes with India not too long ago. Thankfully, these never escalated to all-out war, and all the countries have come to shaky truces for now. Still, the ripple effects have been dire.
India’s most visible response to Chinese military aggression has been a continuing nationalist and Sinophobic trade war—one that’s hopelessly skewed in China’s favor and mostly affects India’s poorest—as well as a ban on hundreds of Chinese cultural products and institutions. A U.S. cybersecurity firm recently warned that Chinese hackers might still have access to parts of India’s grid. The disputes between the two countries over control of necessary Himalayan water sources as well as establishing infrastructure within that area have not been resolved. Plus, China and India are two of the biggest carbon belchers in the world—and, not only do the countries need to work together for their respective emissions-tamping goals, but India is more dependent on Chinese-produced green tech than it realizes. Should the two countries remain at loggerheads, future consequences will be all the worse.
When it comes to China, the U.S. and India are squarely on the same side. But the partnership is not as obvious as it might seem. One of the ostensible reasons for U.S. opposition to China is the latter’s undemocratic government, which, among other things, is keeping as many as a million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, destroying Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy, threatening Taiwan, and keeping a tight control over information dissemination within the country. Yet the actions of the Modi administration resemble those of the Chinese Communist Party far more than many Indians would comfortably admit. India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019, the same year Hong Kong protesters started rising up against the new security law that portended China’s encroachment into the region. Modi’s conservative government has oppressed its Muslim population, building on decades of Hindu-Muslim strife, and cracked down on journalists who refuse to repeat his party’s talking points. It has also restricted social media and streaming media outlets that benefit from reaching India’s massive population, forcing them to censor themselves or face prosecutorial wrath. Conservative media cells are spreading pro-Modi propaganda throughout Europe, and supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party are attempting to infiltrate U.S. academia and politics as well, running sympathetic candidates and lobbying the U.S. Congress to assume a favorable stance toward Modi’s policies.
India’s postcolonial democracy has looked shaky before—such as during the 1970s-era Emergency and the 2002 Gujarat riots. But it may have now reached a tipping point, where its elections are chock-full of rigging and voter suppression, where millions of minorities have been newly disenfranchised, where political institutions opposed to the BJP have been stripped of power, where formerly independent courts now toe that party’s line.
Biden and his Cabinet are undoubtedly aware of these developments. Indeed, prominent figures within his own party have time and again attempted to bring a light to India’s human rights abuses, with little success. Still, this is not stopping the administration’s initiative to bolster its relationship with the Indo-Pacific region, with all the emphasis on India that term implies. In the February Quad meeting, the four nations discussed global security issues and pledged to together produce 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022, a goal that banks on India’s mass vaccine production efforts—which it’s used not only to start inoculating its massive population but also to distribute vaccines to surrounding countries in need of the doses. This move is clearly a diplomatic measure meant to compete with China’s own vaccine production and distribution, part of its own regional goodwill effort. (However, the U.S.’s refusal to let India, among other countries, waive World Trade Organization copyright regulations on the vaccines only hurts India’s manufacturing and distribution capacity.) Plus, the Biden administration has already acquiesced to a longtime Indian government request by asking a U.S. federal court to extradite Tahawwur Rana, who is currently serving a prison sentence for having provided aid to the Pakistani terrorist group that carried out the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Yet in all the India-U.S. meetings, there has not been any reported confrontation on India’s own crumbling democracy. So far it seems the only negative note from the U.S. was Austin’s warning that India’s plan to buy a missile system from Russia—which has notably been an ally of the subcontinent about as long as it’s been a nemesis of the U.S.—could trigger sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This particular system, the S-400, reportedly has the ability to gather American intelligence and has already been a point of dispute between the U.S. and Turkey.
One could argue that the U.S.’s approach here is necessary: It needs to work closely with India to combat climate change, as both countries are among the world’s biggest carbon emitters. But this is complicated by the fact Biden also has to work with China, which far and away has the biggest carbon footprint on the planet (and which is not teaming up easily with the U.S. on this or any other matter). Ideally, all three should work together—after all, even if just one of these countries completely decarbonized overnight, it would not put a stop to worldwide climate disasters.
In regard to China, the U.S. stance of toeing carefully—i.e., opposing authoritarianism while seeking common agreement on problems of global import—was well established before Biden took the White House. With regard to India, that stance is much more murky. Democrats, including Harris, condemned the Modi government’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir, against Muslims, against the poor, against farmers—but, unlike during the ’90s India-Pakistan nuclear arms race, the U.S. never went so far as to take more drastic action against India, through sanctions or other means. (Notably, back in 2007 Biden said the U.S. should not weigh in on Kashmir; his administration has only tepidly addressed the region.)
If Biden really believes, as he said last week, that the defining struggle of our time is between “autocracy or democracy,” he will have to not only confront China’s leaders but India’s as well.
You can argue about whether India is truly fascist, or autocratic, or oligarchic, or whatever—but no matter how you spin it, India is not a democracy. The mass rallies of the past couple years, including the still-strong farmers’ protests and the opposition to the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act, have kept the spirit of Indian democracy live at a popular level—but not an institutional one. It will not take long for the rest of the world to finally catch up with this. In elevating India over China, whether through regional pacts or direct partnerships, Biden may simply be elevating one dictatorial state over another.