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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

The Biden-Modi Meeting Was a Failure for Democracy

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received VIP treatment at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue this week, including a state dinner with President Biden and an address to Congress. Modi's red-carpet treatment was a significant endorsement of his governance, and one few world leaders have received. However, under Modi's premiership, India has moved away from shared values and democratic norms, embracing Hindu nationalism and scapegoating religious minorities. While President Biden and Congressional leaders spoke about human rights and religious freedom, talk alone will not move Modi to change course.

Modi accomplished much during his brief time in Washington, at little cost to his political agenda. The Joint Statement from the United States and India covers a laundry list of Indian priorities. While the document references human rights at the beginning, its 58 paragraphs overwhelmingly focus on technology and trade in ways hugely beneficial to India. Modi also scored a renewed pledge to permanently include India in a reformed United Nations Security Council and joint slap down of archrival Pakistan for terrorism.

But did Modi deserve this treatment? The United States secured little in hard security commitments from him or other items that could bolster democracy and human rights in the region. For instance, Modi has been lukewarm at best regarding support for Ukraine. During the White House press conference, Modi could only vaguely speak of ending the "dispute through dialogue and diplomacy." There was no joint condemnation of Russian aggression, a low bar to meet.

In contrast, our ally, the United Kingdom, has been a global leader. Yet Modi's visit vastly exceeded Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's recent trip, who received neither coveted invitation of a state dinner or congressional speech, "special relationship" notwithstanding. In fact, when Modi took the rostrum before Congress on Thursday, it was his second address before a joint session, while the last British Prime Minister spoke in 2006.

But in the contest with Beijing, commitment to "shared values" was a constant refrain to justify Modi's lavish treatment. Indeed, a democratic India would be a powerful partner in countering authoritarian China, but these values are under attack in India. Indian activists and political analysts I contacted all expressed deep concern about the state of affairs, most only agreeing to talk off the record. One highlighted, "Serious violations of human rights, especially of Muslims, Christians, and other minorities, and of human rights defenders and dissenters, have been increasing in India over the past years, some becoming widespread and systematic." Another analyst described the defamation case against opposition leader Rahul Gandhi as "pure vendetta politics." A third activist spoke of the ongoing "desecration, destruction and torching of over 300 Churches in Manipur [that] is unprecedented in the history of religious violence in India," which continues in India's far east.

When a journalist asked Modi at the White House about declining respect for human rights and democracy, he dodged, saying, "I'm actually really surprised that people say so." While Biden acknowledged our shortcomings, demonstrating humility but a commitment to civil rights, Modi offered no such concession, saying Indian democracy has delivered for all "regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender." He added, "There's absolutely no space for discrimination," which would surprise religious minorities in India.

As the visit approached, many feared officials would overlook these issues, and 75 Democratic Members of Congress wrote Biden to urge him to raise human rights. To his credit, the President did so repeatedly, but always as a joint endeavor. For instance, he said, "Equity under the law, freedom of expression, religious pluralism, and diversity of our people — these core principles have endured and evolved, even as they have faced challenges throughout each of our nations' histories, and will fuel our strength, depth, and future." At another point, he noted, "Indians and Americans are both peoples who … cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights, which face challenges around the world and each — and in each of our countries but which remain so vital to the success of each of our nations: press freedom, religious freedom, tolerance, diversity."

While understandable Biden wouldn't be too pointed with his guest, Modi is savvy enough to know that nods towards human rights will be shunted aside for commercial and military relations. He's seen it before, as silence towards problems in India is not unique to this administration. Then-President Trump ignored riots against Muslims in New Delhi during his 2020 visit, and his administration resisted calls to designate India a "country of particular concern" for the persecution of Christians.

Consequently, to counter India's drift away from shared values, the United States must decide to visibly support Indian civil society, publicly discuss our concerns, and establish consequences for abuses. Aakar Patel, Chair of Amnesty International's India Board, stressed to me the importance of U.S. human rights advocacy. Amnesty's India office was forced to close in 2020, and the Indian government tried to prevent him from traveling internationally in 2022. Patel underscored how "India's friend must press it to do the right thing because often it works." Jesuit Priest Cedric Prakash, a long-time human rights and peace activist, also agreed. Despite our complicated history in the region, Fr Prakash said, "it's imperative that the U.S. raise these sensitive issues with the PM and stop pretending that all is well in India."

India is too important for U.S. policymakers to ignore these trends, and Modi's damaging policies should not lead to self-censorship. The United States' recent criticism of important partners like Poland, Bangladesh, and Israel demonstrates we can raise concerns and deepen relationships simultaneously. In addition, we can learn from our disastrous all-carrots-and-no-stick approach to China in the early 2000s. Many believed preferential trade could encourage China in a positive direction when the Senate voted for most-favored-nation status in September 2000. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party gained technology and resources while nose diving on human rights and consolidating power. Modi's windfall of trade policies absent consequences for rights abuses risks repeating the same mistake.

Only the United States has the ability and global influence to move India. At the arrival ceremony, President Biden noted that we face "an inflection point" where "the decisions we make today are going to determine our future for decades to come." An inflection point is approaching, not on trade but on human rights, as India dangerously shifts towards illiberalism and the victimization of minorities. If the United States says human rights matter in the Indo-Pacific, they should matter, fully integrated into every engagement with friends and foes alike. Should the Indians balk, that's their sovereign right, but a genuinely bilateral relationship must go in two directions, with human rights embedded in a consequential way.

Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University.

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