‘Is America giving Narendra Modi an easy ride?’ : Economist

The West is struggling to balance interests and values in India

 Joe Biden and Narendra Modi
photograph: mega

May 27th 2024: Barring a huge political upset, Narendra Modi looks likely to begin a third term as India’s prime minister soon after June 4th, when the results of the general election will be announced. But the poll has not been pretty: on March 21st Arvind Kejriwal, an opposition leader who is Delhi’s chief minister, was arrested on corruption charges that he calls a political sham. Mr Modi, seemingly unnerved by the low turnout, has ramped up inflammatory rhetoric towards India’s Muslim minority while on the campaign trail. Although voting itself has been generally unproblematic, most Western officials agree that Mr Modi has tilted the political pitch significantly by suppressing dissent and weakening democratic institutions. How should they deal with Mr Modi, particularly if his Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) is emboldened by a large mandate?

The response to Mr Kejirwal’s arrest hints at the tricky diplomatic balancing act for Western governments. Unusually, a spokesman for Germany’s foreign ministry spoke out first, after being quizzed at a news conference on March 22nd. He said that independent judicial standards and “basic democratic principles” should be upheld. America’s State Department followed three days later, encouraging “a fair, transparent, and timely legal process”. Indian authorities quickly summoned the deputy heads of the American and German embassies for a scolding. No other country issued a public statement on the matter.

Indeed, Western officials are mostly allergic to calling Mr Modi out. Ask why, and many will first cite China. America and its closest allies are focused on cultivating India as a partner in counterbalancing China, especially since a clash in 2020 on the disputed border between the two countries, which hardened Indian views towards its neighbour. Next, Western officials often cite pressure from their governments and corporations for better access to the world’s fastest-growing major economy. A third refrain is that India routinely denounces any Western criticism as imperialist hypocrisy—and penalises offenders.

Besides, India’s democracy has always been flawed yet resilient. It went through worse when Indira Gandhi, a prime minister from the rival Congress party, suspended civil liberties in the 1970s. And its democratic institutions still have some life: the Supreme Court granted Mr Kejriwal interim bail on May 10th, although he must return to prison on June 2nd and his former deputy, arrested early last year, has been refused bail (as has another opposition leader).

Still, ask the same Western officials whether their current approach to India is working, and most sound unsure at best. A few claim progress on individual political cases they raise privately. But there is growing anxiety among them about India’s trajectory. And some worry that by failing to better incorporate political values in their dealings or to co-ordinate common positions that protect them from recrimination, Western governments are making the same mistakes that they did with China at a similar stage of development.

Such doubts have recently intensified following the alleged Indian assassination of a Sikh separatist in Canada last year, the attempted killing of another in America and revelations about Indian spying in Australia (India has denied involvement in the assassinations but declined to comment on the Australian spying allegations). Those, combined with Mr Modi’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or to help promote democracy in Myanmar and Bangladesh, are crystallising concerns among some officials that their big gamble on India may not pay off.

“We have to ask ourselves: if we succeed in strengthening India, will that come back to haunt us?” says one former Western official who worked on India policy. “India needs us far more than we think. And so we can afford to actually do the things that we’re not doing today.” Alternative approaches include speaking out more consistently with allies on political issues and using Western technology, investment and support for Indian diplomatic initiatives as leverage. Such policies alone might not make India change course. But they would demonstrate a consistent concern, both to India’s government and to democracies in jeopardy elsewhere in the global south.

Even so, a shift in the West’s current approach is unlikely to occur soon. That is largely due to America. Under President Joe Biden, doubts about India are usually voiced within the State Department. But India policy is dominated by the National Security Council, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon. One consequence is that the Biden administration has resisted a recommendation by a bipartisan federal commission on religious freedom to list India as a “country of particular concern”. Were Donald Trump to win in November, he would probably be even more permissive, given his previous chumminess with Mr Modi.

Among “like-minded” democracies, there is little appetite for confrontation either. Even after Canada revealed the alleged assassination, its partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing grouping (America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand) were slow to show solidarity. Britain and Australia are preoccupied with striking trade deals with India and co-operating on defence. The European Union raises human-rights issues in a regular meeting with India but struggles to reach consensus among member states.

What events could change this stance? One would be a severe bout of communal violence. There has already been an uptick in Hindu vigilante attacks on Muslims in recent years, often egged on by bjp politicians. Mr Modi abandoned his usual restraint in April, suggesting that Congress planned to take Hindus’ wealth and distribute it among Muslims. He also referred to the Congress campaign as “vote jihad” (ie, courting Muslim voters) and warned that the party planned to bulldoze a Hindu temple that he inaugurated in January.

Violence against Indian Muslims has rarely become a political issue in the West. But it did after deadly riots in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, when Mr Modi was chief minister there. And Western governments and corporations are facing increasing public scrutiny of their stance on rights abuses against Muslims in the wake of Israel’s war in Gaza and China’s mass internment of Islamic minorities.

Another risk is that Mr Modi’s muscle-flexing reaches deeper into India’s diaspora. Relations with Canada have already been upended by the alleged assassination. America has called for an investigation and protested in private while trying to limit the fallout. Some Western officials believe that India will henceforth show more restraint (or at least practise better tradecraft). But another such incident would trigger a much deeper diplomatic crisis. Even without that, there could be friction over Indian efforts to monitor or intimidate critics abroad. Some Western officials also worry that rabble-rousing by the bjp and its allies could provoke the kind of unrest between Hindus and Muslims that hit Leicester, a British city, in 2022.

Demographics in the fast-growing Indian diaspora matter, too. Many politicians in the West assume widespread support for Mr Modi among people of Indian origin. But the proportion of the diaspora from Sikh, Christian or other minorities (who generally support the bjp less) is much higher than within India.

That has already affected India’s standoff with Canada, whose large Sikh population is deeply involved in Canadian politics. Britain’s Conservative Party, meanwhile, enjoys strong backing from British Hindus but looks set to lose an election in July to the Labour Party, which traditionally draws support from Muslims of South Asian origin. Diaspora demographics have yet to filter into politics in Australia but will do increasingly in future, predicts Ian Hall of Griffith University in Queensland. That is true in America, too, as many newer Indian immigrants there hail from southern India, where the bjp is less popular.

Ultimately, though, the strongest impetus for change in India may be economic. Western corporations invested in China, Russia and other autocracies for years with little regard for human rights. Recently, though, they have grown more sensitive to consumer boycotts and supply-chain risks.

A new eu due-diligence law could force Western businesses to factor in human-rights conditions when considering India as an alternative manufacturing base to China, thinks Michael Posner, a lawyer and former American official. He says that Western governments can now argue that “we have these laws and that means we’re going to be more involved in this space. We want Western companies to invest in India, so help us to help you.” The big question is whether Mr Modi will oblige. ■

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