President Biden has declared that « the battle between democracy and autocracy » is the defining struggle of his time. But when he rolls out the red carpet on the South Lawn of the White House for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday morning, Mr. Biden will effectively call a temporary truce.
By granting Mr Modi a coveted state visit, complete with a star-studded gala dinner, Mr Biden will draw attention to a leader presiding over democratic backsliding in the world’s most populous nation. Modi’s government has cracked down on dissent and persecuted opponents in a way that has raised fears of an authoritarian shift not seen since India slid into dictatorship in the 1970s.
Yet Mr. Biden has concluded, much like his predecessors, that he needs India despite human rights concerns just as he believes he needs Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and other countries that are outright autocracies or which do not fall into the category of ideal democracies. In a time of confrontation with Russia and an uneasy standoff with China, Mr. Biden is forced to accept the shortcomings of America’s friends.
Two and a half years into his administration, the democracy versus autocracy framework has, therefore, become something of a geopolitical straitjacket for Mr. Biden, who admits few of the subtleties that his foreign policy actually envisions, but which guarantees virtually every critic shaking hands with a counterpart fails the George Washington test. Even some of his best advisers privately see the construct as too black and white in a world of grays.
« Whenever a president dresses his foreign policy in the language of values, any concession to geopolitical reality inevitably elicits cries of hypocrisy, » said Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. « The reality, of course, is that every US president, including those most devoted to democracy and human rights, has realized that there were some relationships too strategically important to hold concerns about democratic values hostage. »
The dynamic, which has been repeated time and time again, has become a tiresome subject for some senior administration officials. The slogan of democracy, they said, has never fully captured a more structured strategy that goes far beyond dividing the world into two simple, opposing camps. Rather, it was about acknowledging the growing global drift from freedom and the threats posed by more aggressive powers such as Russia and China.
« From our perspective, it’s never been easier than designing jerseys, » Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said in an interview with several reporters Tuesday. « It’s always been about seeing those long-term trends and trying to steer those trends in the right direction and then be prepared to have a more sophisticated approach to how we build relationships with a number of different countries. »
The White House sees Modi’s visit as a critical moment in cementing a relationship with a major « swinging state, » as officials have come to describe powers that have not definitively sided in Russia’s war against Ukraine. And US officials see India as one of the bulwarks against China’s advance.
« We expect this to be a historic visit, » Sullivan said, expecting « a significant number of announcements » of deals on military sales, technology, supply chains, semiconductors and energy, among others. « This truly, in my view, is going to be one of the defining partnerships of our era. »
Mr. Sullivan insisted that Mr. Biden was not betraying his commitment to democracy by hosting Mr. Modi so generously and said the president would raise concerns about democracy and human rights, albeit diplomatically. Mr. Biden, Sullivan said, « will try to indicate where we stand without somehow coming across a speech or lecture to another country that has a proud history of sovereignty. »
The president will, evidently, do so without the traditional joint press conference he holds with many visiting leaders. Although no official agenda has been released, Indian officials have resisted the efforts of their American counterparts to hold such a session, since Mr. Modi does not hold press conferences even on his own soil and has no interest in submitting to questions from American journalists.
Mr. Modi will arrive at the White House Wednesday evening for a private dinner with Mr. Biden, who will have just returned from a three-day swing through California. The President will then formally welcome Mr Modi on Thursday morning with a pompous arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. After meetings during the day, the two will reconvene at a state dinner in the evening, only the third Biden has held during his presidency after events for the leaders of France and South Korea, two strong democracies.
Mr Modi arrives as India just overtook China as the world’s most populous nation and feels it is asserting itself on the global stage. Now the fifth largest economy on the planet, India has a young workforce, a strong tech industry, a growing consumer market and barely dent potential as a manufacturing hub.
India’s trade with the US has reached an estimated $190 billion a year, and Atul Keshap, a former US envoy in New Delhi and now chairman of the US-India Business Council, has predicted it could soon be worth $500 billion. . Only Canada, Mexico, the European Union and China are in that league.
While many of the strategic goals of the US and India have been achieved, Keshap said in an online discussion, something still needs to “give a boost to these trade and business ties, because that is the real muscle and sinew of a relationship. ”
That something could be China, as American business and political leaders see India as a suitable country to bear some of the immense weight China has in the world economy. With growth of 6% or higher expected this year, and with much of the rest of the world’s economy hampered by war and inflation in Ukraine, India is making itself heard by both buyers and sellers worldwide .
« The United States needs India as much as India needs the United States, » said Happymon Jacob, who teaches Indian foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “The power play in the wake of the war in Ukraine and India’s position have driven home the point in Washington and other world capitals that New Delhi cannot be rejected and must be involved. For the United States, India has become an indispensable power”.
This has, to some extent, overshadowed the downsizing of Indian democracy under Modi over the past nine years. Some democracy watchdogs have downgraded India’s ratings, using phrases like « electoral autocracy » and « flawed democracy. » India tops the global list of countries using internet outages to quell riots. Opposition leaders are often raided by investigative agencies and mired in court cases. Rahul Gandhi, a prominent opposition leader, has been expelled from Parliament and is fighting to avoid a prison sentence after being accused of defaming Modi’s name.
Some experts have argued that alarm over Indian democracy is exaggerated, arguing that despite the erosion of civil liberties and the regression in minority protections, there has been a deepening of democratic norms in other areas, with more people, especially women, who participate in elections .
But Modi’s subtle consolidation of power is solidifying a Hindu supremacy over India’s constitutionally secular democracy and creating impunity for right-wing vigilantes who attack mosques and churches, harass interfaith couples and even lynch men accused of transporting beef. The state is seen as increasingly partisan in the way it dispenses justice.
None of which the prime minister is interested in discussing with Biden, viewing the issues as internal matters that are not Washington’s business. Just as Mr. Biden abandoned his vow to make Saudi Arabia a « pariah » and is instead courting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he plans to highlight points of common interest with Mr. Modi over the next couple of days rather that the areas of disagreement .
India is « sending a message to the US that it has to choose between preaching in India or engaging India, » Jacob said. « I think the United States has realized that it would sacrifice the geopolitical usefulness of Indo-American relations if it decided to chastise India. »
Alex Travelli and Karan Deep Singh contributed to the reporting.