With India, Biden putting money where democracy & human rights should be

US President Joe Biden will host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House amid growing concerns about Hindu nationalism and democratic erosion in the world’s most populous nation.

The meeting comes at a time when relations between the two countries have been strained over a number of issues, including trade, climate change, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Modi is visiting the United States from June 21–23.

The pseudo-fascist assault on democracy in the world’s most populous country should merit an international outcry but Biden is once again betraying his own words, in which he pledged to promote both U.S. interests and U.S. values while serving as commander in chief.

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” said Biden in a refrain he has repeated often throughout his presidency. “This is a real test. It’s going to take time.”

Modi has ruled as an autocratic-leaning Hindu nationalist whose government has cracked down on everyone from journalists to political opposition leaders as part of a broad assault on Indian Muslims. In 2005, earlier, Modi had been denied a U.S. visa on religious freedom grounds after being accused of tacitly supporting Hindu extremists who attacked Muslims years earlier in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister.

Biden is expected to raise concerns about Modi’s policies, which have been criticized for marginalizing religious minorities and promoting intolerance, as well as on India’s human rights record, which has deteriorated in recent years.

In 2001, as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden urged the administration of then-president George W. Bush to lift sanctions imposed on India for the 1998 nuclear tests, arguing: “The economic sanctions against India serve to stigmatize rather than stabilize, if the sanctions are removed, India will respond with reciprocal acts of goodwill in non-proliferation and other arenas.”

Human rights advocates have criticized Biden not just for hosting Modi, but for throwing him a state dinner, a prestigious honor bestowed upon only two other foreign leaders since he claimed the White House.

Since Modi took office in 2014, and especially after winning reelection in 2019, he has systematically taken a hammer to the core institutions of Indian democracy.

The prime minister’s government has undermined the independence of the election supervision authority, manipulated judges into ruling in his favor, used law enforcement against his enemies, and increased its control over the Indian press.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has used its electoral dominance to silence critics and stack the electoral deck against his opponents,

The BJP is the electoral offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu nationalist organization to which Modi has belonged since he was 8 years old. Christophe Jaffrelot, a leading Indian scholar at France’s Sciences Po, said that its ideology amounts to “an Indian version of fascism.”

In 1939, RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar explicitly praised the Nazi treatment of Jews and in 1948, an RSS devotee named Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi — a killing credited to his Hindu nationalist ideology.

Until 1977, the RSS’s political arm, called the BJS, never reached 10 percent of the national popular vote but in the mid-to-late 1980s the party learned to exploit religious bigotry more effectively by making it seem as if the prevailing Indian secular establishment prioritized the interests of the Muslim minority over the Hindu majority.

That organization evolved into BJP and won India’s parliamentary election in 2014, moderating its ideological agenda as the ruling government.

But make no mistake: much of the BJP leadership remains dedicated to Hindutva ideology, which held that post-colonial India should be a country ruled by and for Hindus. While the RSS formally repudiated Golwalkar’s writing in 2006, this seemed more like a branding exercise than anything else. His basic idea of a Hindu Rashtra remains at the center of BJP-RSS ideology.

Modi, for his part, is likely to seek reassurances from Biden that the US will not interfere in India’s internal affairs. He is also likely to ask for US support in countering China’s growing influence in the region.

The meeting is likely to be a test of the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights. It will also be a chance for the two leaders to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation on a range of issues, including trade, climate change, and security.

“A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access,” said a letter to Biden signed by 70 members of Congress. “Specifically, the State Department’s 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in India documents the tightening of political rights and expression. Similarly, the State Department’s 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom in India details the worrisome increase of religious intolerance toward minorities and religiously motivated violence by both private and state actors. Further, the annual assessments compiled by Reporters Without Borders show that India, a country that has been known in the past for its vibrant and independent press, has fallen significantly in the rankings for press freedom. And according to Access Now, India ranks first in terms of the most internet shutdowns for the fifth year in a row,”

Analysts say the meeting is a sign of the Biden administration’s desire to maintain a close relationship with India, as well as for some domestic political pandering.

The Indian diaspora in the United States is now estimated to be more than 4 million, the largest single-country presence of persons of Indian origin. Indian Americans occupy key positions in the administration, Congress, and business.

Trade between the two countries reached $191 billion in 2021–2022, and the United States has become India’s largest trading partner. Both countries have invested around $40 billion in the other, with Indian companies now having a presence in all fifty U.S. states.

Defense trade and technology partnerships are growing, with both nations doing more military exercises with each other, with increasing complexity and building toward interoperability. There are more than 200,000 Indian students in American universities.

The meeting could backfire if Biden is seen as giving Modi a pass on his human rights record.

“There’s been a conscious policy decision to downplay Indian democratic backsliding because it’s awkward,” says Sadanand Dhume, a senior fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. “We need India as a potential bulwark against China, and the Indians have been very skillful in exploiting the tendency in Washington toward tunnel vision.”

The meeting will be closely watched by human rights groups and activists, who are hoping that Biden will use the opportunity to press Modi on his record.

“It’s important for Prime Minister Modi to see that US leaders are scrutinizing his government’s actions and that worsening abuses are affecting US-India relations,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Both Modi and Biden should jointly acknowledge human rights challenges – both in India and the US – and agree to address them.”

The meeting between Biden and Modi is not a delicate balancing act. It is a surrender of principles in order to gain geopolitical advantages. It is selling out American values in order to cash in economically and strengthen military alliances that signal force is preferable to diplomacy.

The Biden administration needs to maintain a close relationship with India, but it also needs to stand up for democracy and human rights. The President has made a choice to prioritize wealth and power instead of political principles.

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