India’s Narendra Modi was in the US for three days, visited two cities, New York, and Washington DC. But he achieved in three days what his predecessors could not obtain from the US in years of their office as prime minister of India before.
For a political leader who was once denied visa to the US for violation of religious freedom and human rights, Modi was not only welcomed to the US on a state visit – only the third world leader to receive this honour during Biden administration – he was wowed and acclaimed in a joint session of the Congress, attended UN on International Yoga Day as chief guest, and received honours in the famed Kennedy Center as a celebrity.
This is for public display, but behind all this was what Modi attained for India for his country. Most significant was an agreement with the corporate giant General Electric for co-production of jet engines in India, agreement with Micron to assemble chips in India, agreement to buy defense drones from the US, and accord to join co-operation in space. Modi also obtained, to the delight of his Indian American diaspora, increased quota in H1 visas as well as speedy disposal of naturalisation process for Indians in the pipeline.
Surely this is a list of achievements that will swell the chests of most Indians home and abroad, albeit to the chagrin of those who say that Indian democracy is under threat from increasing squeeze on the minorities and violence against them.
This coddling of Modi and his government flies in the face of India’s conduct in Kashmir, including rescinding the constitutional provision (Article 370) that allowed its special status, and changes brought about in its citizenship act that allowed citizenship to all migrants from six adjoining countries except Muslims. These open and very transparent actions spoke vividly about the nature of Modi’s political principles and his party’s agenda.
But Biden administration, which is quick to wield a stick against lesser countries on any instance of human rights violation or suppression of religious freedom, decided to keep a blind eye on the human rights question in India. Instead, they wanted to approach the subject with a degree of humility.
According to the Financial Times, an official reportedly said that the US would not engage in “hectoring, lecturing, or scolding (India)” on the subject. After their meeting, Biden declared he had a good discussion with Modi on democratic values common to both India and the US. On a question on human rights and suppression of human rights in India in a joint press conference, Modi evaded a direct answer, saying instead in a country where “democracy runs in our veins” the question of discrimination or suppression on any basis does not arise. “We live democracy,” Modi added to the applause of his host.
So why is this blind eye in the face of the accusation against Modi and his government? To understand this we have to acknowledge that for every big power maintaining and expanding its own interests to seeking and furthering alliance.
In its objective to contain growth of Chinese influence globally, and in the pacific region in particular, India is a natural ally of the US. But this alliance is not easy, as India has proved elusive in the past in furthering a military alliance with the US. India has been traditionally relying on former Soviet Union and now Russia for its defense needs. It still imports most of its oil from Russia. So, for the US, it will not be easy to wean India from its traditional ally.
But in the current geo-politics, Russia is not a contender for global domination, but China is. It is imperative for the US to woo India (and Modi) for a strategic alliance in the pacific region to contain China. It is not enough that India is a member of the four-country association (Australia, the US, Japan, and India) formed more as a strategic discussion group than a military alliance. But it is also necessary that the US draw India much closer militarily with baits of defense equipment sale and other economic investments.
It does not matter what India does domestically to its people. What matters is India’s partnership with the US in containing China, which India does not mind. Because my enemy’s enemy is my friend. China is no friend of India, and the US wants to leverage this adversarial relationship.
I think it was first the foreign minister of Bangladesh who had remarked on Modi’s visit to the US – whether Modi would speak on the US visa policy to Bangladesh. He had aptly said that what would happen on that visit was a matter between their two countries. His response was reaffirmed by the prime minister.
Both were right; India’s Modi did not visit the US to advocate for other people. He was there for his own country and its interests. As was the US wooing Modi for its own strategic interests.
As for us, we should take lessons from this visit in a different way. Big powers, and even though India has not stepped into the shoes of the Big Seven, will seek friendship with each other without looking over their shoulders to see what they are doing in their homes. Big powers pry into homes and kitchens of smaller fry because it is easy to hector and lecture them. But this does not mean that we, the small fry, should not keep our homes and kitchens clean and free of criticism from anyone.
We have to do our part to keep us above criticism and we don’t have big powers either to chastise us or help us. In that spirit, we should view the US wooing Modi in a positive way.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.
This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.