Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit is fueling concerns from activist groups that the Biden administration is putting human rights on the back burner.
During the visit, President Biden held back from public criticism of Modi’s handling of human rights and democratic values — issues that led a handful of progressive lawmakers to boycott his speech to a joint address to Congress.
The president, instead, rolled out the red carpet for Modi with a celebratory welcome and hug, a 21-gun salute and a state dinner with notable White House guests, a charm offensive underscoring India’s economic and foreign policy importance to the United States.
Biden had previously come under criticism last July for a fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a visit to Jeddah that advocates argue effectively ignored the Saudi government’s human rights abuses.
White House officials contend that tough conversations with allies behind closed doors — including Modi — are more productive than grandstanding and scolding in public.
“The prime minister and I had a good discussion about democratic values. … We’re straightforward with each other, and — and we respect each other,” Biden said during a press conference alongside Modi at the White House on Thursday.
But critics say that puts little pressure on governments and leaders like Modi to actually deliver on reforms.
The Indian leader in particular is criticized for failing to counter anti-Muslim hate and is cracking down on civil liberties and press freedoms — issues that strike at the core of respect for democratic governments.
“I would argue that the administration needs to be more explicit about backsliding allies, practically recommitting themselves to fundamental freedoms and the respect for human rights as the basis for an evolving global order,” said Tess McEnery, who previously served as Biden’s director for democracy and human rights at the National Security Council.
During his campaign, Biden put human rights at the center of his foreign policy messaging and identified strengthening democracy — at home and abroad — as key to pushing back against autocratic governments such as Russia and China.
Yet in pushing back on Russia and China, the U.S. also needs allies. And that has complicated efforts with human rights.
The White House sees India as an indispensable partner in its strategy with China; its population of 1.4 billion people is the only market that can compete with Beijing’s.
India represents a needed partner in the administration’s efforts to diversify supply chains away from China for critical materials such as semiconductors and rare earth minerals that are the building blocks of those technologies.
Modi recognized the power that India holds during his address to Congress on Thursday. “When defense and aerospace in India grow, industries in the states of Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania thrive. … When Indians fly more, a single order for aircrafts creates more than a million jobs in 44 states in America,” he said. “When an American phone maker invests in India, it creates an entire ecosystem of jobs and opportunities in both countries.”
The most robust applause from Congress came when Modi said the U.S. was one of India’s “most important defense partners” — an important statement given American efforts to turn New Delhi away from its reliance on on Russia’s defense industry and have it serve a bulwark against China’s growing military.
Being hospitable to Modi also has its domestic political benefits.
The U.S. is home to a more than an Indian-American community of more than 4.5 million people — a key voting bloc that the president hopes to hold onto ahead of what is likely to be a fraught 2024 presidential election.
“I think that President Biden is eager not to cede any of the, kind of, Indian-American community vote to the Republican Party,” said Daniel Markey, senior adviser on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
Republicans and Democrats in Congress are largely united in supporting a robust U.S. and Indian partnership. A bipartisan and bicameral grouping introduced legislation Thursday to fast-track weapons sales to India in recognition of Modi’s visit.
And while more than 70 House and Senate lawmakers raised concerns over Modi’s human rights record in a letter to Biden ahead of the visit, only a little more than a handful of progressive Democratic lawmakers boycotted the prime minister’s speech.
“We are told that we must now turn a blind eye to the repression because of foreign policy concerns, even though human rights are supposed to be at the center of our foreign policy,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said during a policy briefing she hosted with human rights advocates after Modi’s address, which she boycotted.
Among the most pressing criticisms against Modi’s rule is the criminal conviction against Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, who was sentenced to two years in prison for negatively using Modi’s surname during a political rally in 2019.
Advocates have also warned about freedom of speech and press freedoms in India in the wake of a tax raid on the offices of the BBC in India in March, and cases of journalists being jailed.
Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that tracks democratic freedoms globally, rated India as “partly free” in its Freedom in the World report for 2023. The group claimed Modi’s government and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party “has presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population.”
“The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi,” the group wrote.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, argued that a balance can be met between calling out human rights concerns while also supporting the U.S.-Indian relationship.
“It’s because we value our friendship with the Indian people that we also have to speak the truth about human rights abuses in India that are ongoing, well-documented by credible observers and deeply troubling,” he said at the policy briefing hosted by Omar.
“We don’t raise these issues to discredit India,” he continued. “We raise them because we know from our own experience that if human rights problems are not confronted and resolved, they will fester and deepen and undermine a country’s promise.”
Markey, of the USIP, said the Biden administration prepared for blowback over the decision to keep criticisms against Modi in private, but added that its excessive references to sharing appreciation for democratic governance did itself no favors.
“I think they went even farther than maybe they needed to do, for Indian consumption,” he said. “They leaned into the shared-democracy issue, rather than pulling back from it,” Markey added. “They gave a lot of ammunition to those who would suggest that this is just pure hypocrisy at this point, rather than kind of edging around it.”
McEnery, who is now the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the Biden administration needs to elevate defending democracy and human rights to an “interest” more than a value.
That would mean doing trade and economic deals centered on good governance principles, she said, or reforming arms and security relationships based on human rights.
“I saw this firsthand a lot, where many good, hard-working people inside every arm of the U.S. government, including the National Security Council, tried to make the case for democracy and human rights as a vital national security interest,” she said. “And I would see that shot down time and again by others throughout the government.”