It has been a ritual for decades. Whenever American policymakers travel to India, they sing paeans to the beauty of Indian politics, to the country’s diversity, and to the shared values connecting—in the words of multiple U.S. presidents—“the world’s oldest democracy” and “the world’s largest democracy.” This rhetoric may be gauzy, and it is certainly grandiose. But to Washington, it is not empty. In the view of U.S. policymakers, common democratic principles will be the foundation of an enduring U.S.-Indian relationship, one with broad strategic significance. The world’s two biggest democracies, they say, can’t help but have similar worldviews and interests.
“Our common interest in democracy and righteousness will enable your countrymen and mine to make common cause against a common enemy,” U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Mohandas Gandhi, then the de facto leader of India’s independence movement, during World War II. During the Cold War, successive presidential administrations tried to get New Delhi to stand against Moscow by arguing that, as a democracy, India was a natural enemy of the Soviet Union. When President George W. Bush struck a breakthrough civilian nuclear deal with India in 2005, he declared that India’s democratic system meant that the two states were “natural partners” united “by deeply held values.”
Yet again and again, India has disappointed American hopes. Gandhi, for example, frustrated Roosevelt by prioritizing India’s struggle for freedom against the British Empire over the war against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. New Delhi not only refused to align with Washington during the Cold War; it forged warm ties with Moscow instead. Even after the Cold War ended and India began strengthening its relations with the United States, New Delhi maintained strong connections to the Kremlin. It has refused to work with the United States on Iran, and it has made nice with Myanmar’s military regime. Most recently, it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If making democratic values the cornerstone of the U.S.-Indian relationship has always been a dubious strategy, today it is clearly doomed—because the very notion of common values has itself come to look fanciful. Ever since Narendra Modi became the Indian prime minister nine years ago, India’s status as a democracy has become increasingly suspect. The “world’s largest democracy” has seen an upsurge in violence directed at its Muslim minority, often whipped up by prominent politicians. It is trying to strip citizenship from millions of Muslim residents. It is muzzling the press and silencing opposition figures. The Biden administration, having cast itself as a vocal champion of democratic ideals, therefore finds itself on shaky ground whenever it characterizes the United States’ partnership with India as one of shared values.
But it continues to do just that. In January, for example, the White House declared that the two states’ joint technology initiatives were “shaped by our shared democratic values and respect for universal human rights.” In June, Modi will visit Washington, D.C., for a formal state dinner meant to affirm “the warm bonds of family and friendship” that link the two countries. In February, however, the Indian government made it difficult for a leading Indian think tank to raise money, a major blow to intellectual freedom. In March, Modi’s party removed one of India’s most prominent opposition politicians from Parliament—explicitly because he insulted the prime minister.
Yet even as the two countries’ shared values have grown weaker, their shared material interests have only gotten stronger. India and the United States now have a clear, common geopolitical foe in China, and each understands that the other can help it win its competition against Beijing. For the United States, India is a massive, pivotal power in Asia that sits astride critical maritime routes and shares a long, contested land border with China. For India, the United States is an attractive source of advanced technology, education, and investment. New Delhi may still have close ties with Moscow, but the uncertain quality and reliability of Russian arms mean that India is more open than ever to buying weapons from the West instead.
To capitalize on these complementary material interests, however, the United States must dispense with the idea that shared values can provide the bedrock of a strong relationship, justifying its high tolerance for New Delhi’s behavior on the basis of a bet on long-term convergence. Rather than considering India an ally in the fight for global democracy, it must see that India is an ally of convenience. This shift will not be easy, given that Washington has spent decades looking at New Delhi through rose-colored glasses. But the pivot will encourage both sides to understand that their relationship is ultimately transactional—and allow them to get down to business.
American leaders, especially liberal ones, have long believed that democratic institutions are a defining feature of India’s identity—and the reason why New Delhi deserves Washington’s support. In 1958, for example, then Senator John Kennedy introduced a bipartisan resolution to increase assistance to India, premised on the idea that it was vital for the United States to support a fledgling democracy against communist encroachment. India’s “democratic future is delicately and dangerously poised,” Kennedy declared in a landmark speech. “It would be catastrophic if its leadership were now humiliated in its quest for Western assistance when its cause is good.”
As the former diplomat Dennis Kux wrote in India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, “The effort succeeded.” During President Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, Kux notes, “US assistance grew substantially, surging from about $400 million in 1957, to a record $822 million in 1960.” Eisenhower himself seemed committed to India’s democratic future. As the president stated in remarks at the opening of the World Agriculture Fair in New Delhi in December 1959, “Whatever strengthens India, my people are convinced, strengthens us, a sister republic dedicated to peace.” Six months later, Eisenhower signed a breakthrough multiyear deal with India to deliver $1.28 billion in food aid under the United States’ Food for Peace program, because India’s domestic farmers were routinely unable to meet the country’s food needs.
But if Kennedy and Eisenhower hoped that praising India would turn New Delhi into an ally, they were sorely mistaken. In 1954, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had explicitly declared that his country would remain nonaligned in the Cold War, rankling Eisenhower. Kennedy, as president, hoped he could bring India closer by having Nehru visit Washington in 1961, but the trip changed nothing. The prime minister rebuffed all his efforts to bring India into the United States’ orbit.
As Kux recounts, Kennedy’s Cold War successors were similarly frustrated by New Delhi. President Lyndon Johnson found Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1966 criticism of U.S. involvement in Vietnam to be particularly galling; his ambassador to India later recalled that the president’s reaction ranged “from the violent to the obscene.” Gandhi’s subsequent decision, in 1971, to conclude a “Friendship Treaty” with Moscow was later described by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “bombshell” that threw “a lighted match into a powder keg,” inflaming relations between India and Pakistan. And in January 1980, when India’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations effectively endorsed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter was livid. Carter’s ambassador in New Delhi told Gandhi “what a devastating statement it had been from the American point of view and what a terrible backlash it had caused in the United States.”
Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers often praised India in the following decades, and policymakers continued to argue that India’s democratic principles made it a good partner. In his address to India’s Parliament in 2000, President Bill Clinton asserted that the strength of India’s democracy was the first of several important lessons it had taught the world. The administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama routinely employed the “oldest and largest democracies” formulation to describe Washington and New Delhi and their longtime ties. In a 2010 speech to the Indian Parliament, Obama repeatedly stressed the unique bond shared by “two strong democracies.” He then endorsed India’s effort to obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, suggesting that cooperation between India and the United States on the council would strengthen “the foundations of democratic governance, not only at home but abroad.”
Obama’s Security Council reform has yet to materialize, but it is difficult to see how India’s performance at the UN would ever live up to U.S. expectations. In the UN General Assembly from 2014 to 2019, only 20 percent of India’s votes were coincident with those of the United States. Even when votes on Israeli and Palestinian issues (on which the two states are even further apart) are excluded, the figure rises to only 24 percent. By comparison, France voted with the United States 57 percent of the time overall and 67 percent of the time when Israeli and Palestinian issues were left out. This divergence shouldn’t be surprising; India has routinely walked away from the United States’ biggest international initiatives. It has never joined a Washington-led trade agreement, for example. And it has never given much more than lip service to Washington’s drives to expand democracy, whether in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, during the Bush administration’s efforts to promote the so-called freedom agenda, or during the Arab Spring of the Obama years.
Hindu nationalism at home leads India to promote illiberal aims abroad.
Despite these disappointments, the Biden administration has continued to push for closer ties with India, leaning hard into the two states’ supposedly common values as it makes its case. President Joe Biden invited Modi to Washington’s two democracy summits, and the prime minister delivered remarks at each. In a May 2022 meeting with Modi, Biden said that cooperation between India and the United States is built on their shared “commitment to representative democracy.” When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited India in July 2021, he said that “the relationship between our two countries is so important and so strong because it is a relationship between our democracies.” And on a March 2023 trip to New Delhi, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo praised Modi as an “unbelievable visionary” and declared that the two states were united by democratic principles.
But yet again, New Delhi has frustrated the White House on policies related to liberal values. It has, for instance, maintained ties with and sold weapons to the military junta that ousted Myanmar’s democratic government in 2021. New Delhi plays an active role in multilateral groups critical of the United States and the West, such as the BRICS, which also includes Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa. And it has continued to stand by Moscow. Shortly before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, India went ahead with purchases of Russian S-400 air defense systems, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. Since the invasion, India has abstained on every decisive UN vote. It has refused to entertain any economic restrictions against Russia. It even began purchasing more Russian energy after the invasion began.
India’s behavior regarding the war in Ukraine, in particular, has angered many of New Delhi’s biggest supporters in the U.S. Congress. “Frankly, many of my colleagues and I are puzzled by India’s equivocation in the face of the biggest threat to democracy since World War II,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who chairs the Senate subcommittee responsible for South Asia. “At a time when democracies are closing ranks to condemn Russia’s invasion, it is troubling, to say the least, to see India, the world’s largest democracy, sitting on the sidelines.”
New Delhi’s position on Ukraine certainly cuts against its espoused values. But it is far from India’s biggest democratic failure. Since winning two sweeping national victories, one in 2014 and another in 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has made India’s own attachment to liberalism more and more dubious. The BJP has hollowed out institutions that can check the prime minister’s behavior, including by politicizing India’s civilian bureaucracy and turning its Parliament into a rubber stamp for the party’s priorities. Modi also tolerates no criticism in the media, academia, or civil society. The government, for example, imposed an outright ban on a 2023 BBC documentary that detailed Modi’s role in the state of Gujarat’s deadly 2002 communal riots. The organizations that compile the three biggest rankings of democracy across the world—the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute, Freedom House, and the Economist Intelligence Unit—have all downgraded India’s score since Modi took office.
New Delhi’s democratic failings extend beyond eliminating checks and balances. The BJP is deeply intertwined with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization that aims to give India an exclusively Hindu identity (and to which Modi belongs). Created in 1925, the RSS was modeled on interwar European fascist groups and charged with promoting, in the words of one founder, “the military regeneration of the Hindus.” This goal was directly opposed by Mohandas Gandhi and Nehru, who championed freedom of religion, celebrated diversity, and defended minority rights. That is why a radicalized Hindu nationalist and RSS member assassinated Gandhi in 1948.
India’s autocratic turn creates many problems for the United States. One is that it simply makes New Delhi less trustworthy. Democratically accountable leaders need to justify and defend foreign policies to their own citizens, which makes their decisions more transparent and predictable. Authoritarian decisions, by contrast, are far harder to predict. In addition, the more ethnonationalist New Delhi becomes, the less secure India will be. India is home to roughly 200 million Muslims—almost the size of Pakistan’s entire population—and it has an extensive history of communal violence. By repressing its minorities, India risks its tenuous stability in the near term and mounting and debilitating violence in the long term. And an India consumed with internal security challenges will have fewer resources, less bandwidth for foreign policy, and less legitimacy to play a constructive role beyond its borders.
India’s Hindu nationalism at home also leads it to promote illiberal aims abroad. Hindu nationalists believe that one of their top foreign policy achievements has been mobilizing overseas RSS-affiliated groups in the Indian diaspora to lobby other capitals, including Washington, to support BJP initiatives. Hindu nationalists also believe that India should be a sprawling, civilizational power, and many of them say they want to create Akhand Bharat—a greater “Undivided India”—in which New Delhi would build a “cultural confederation” of territory stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar and Sri Lanka to Tibet. In 2022, for example, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed that this could be a reality in as little as ten to 15 years. His statements raised questions about what a Hindu cultural confederation would actually mean, and they have prompted at least some regional consternation about whether India’s drive for leadership will be as peaceful as the country claims.
Despite the obvious evidence of the BJP’s illiberalism, top Biden administration officials have avoided publicly criticizing the Modi government. Instead, they have brushed aside concerns by declaring, as Blinken did in 2021, that every democracy is an imperfect “work in progress.” Presumably, that is because Biden believes that expressing any concerns about Indian policies would cause too much harm to the relationship.
This fear is not baseless. Like most countries, India does not like to be criticized, so an honest airing of grievances would not go down well. But the current, disingenuous approach has its own price. Soft-pedaling concerns about India’s authoritarian slide, for example, weakens Washington’s ability to champion democracy around the world. In fact, it might actively encourage democratic backsliding. India is no garden-variety struggling democracy: it is the world’s most populous country and a leader in the global South. When Modi uses his association with Washington to burnish his democratic credentials and even to strengthen his self-serving narrative that Hindu India is “the mother of democracy” (as he declared during Washington’s 2023 Summit for Democracy), it sets back liberalism everywhere.
Praising India’s democracy also makes it hard for Biden to build the domestic political alliances he needs to cooperate with New Delhi on security. Many powerful U.S. constituencies, including evangelical Christian groups, are deeply concerned about India’s poor treatment of minorities, its crackdown on religious freedoms, and its stifling of the press. The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with other top U.S. media outlets, run stories and columns on these issues so frequently that BJP leaders have gone out of their way to label the publications “anti-Indian.” And influential figures in Washington are expressing growing alarm about India’s illiberal policies. In March 2021, for example, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, asking that he use his upcoming India trip to “make clear that in all areas, including security cooperation, the U.S.-India partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values.” If Biden continues to emphasize principles in his pitch for better relations, his calls could face mounting opposition.
ENEMY OF MY ENEMY
India’s turn away from democracy is deeply unfortunate. But New Delhi is still an invaluable partner for Washington. In addition to being the world’s most populous state, India boasts the world’s fifth-largest economy, the world’s second-largest military, and a significant cadre of highly educated scientists and engineers. It has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. And like the United States, India is deeply concerned about China, which it sees as a dangerous power intent on challenging the regional and global order. In a way, now may be the best moment for the United States to cooperate with India. The question is how far Washington should go.
In many cases, the decision to help India is easy. When China began encroaching on Indian territory along the Chinese-Indian border, prompting deadly clashes between the two countries’ militaries in 2020, Washington rightfully provided New Delhi with urgently needed cold-weather gear and intelligence on Chinese positions. It also expedited already planned deliveries of surveillance drones. Since then, U.S. officials have correctly concluded that they can have far more candid discussions with India’s leaders than they have had in the past about defense cooperation, both on land and at sea. They hope that the threat from China, combined with Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, presents Washington with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to decisively (if not immediately) get New Delhi to shift its heavy reliance on Russian-made military gear to U.S. systems.
Greater U.S.-Indian alignment on China also means the two states could cooperate on certain kinds of technology. Washington, for example, could work with New Delhi to develop alternatives to Chinese-built information and telecommunications infrastructure as a means to compete in a global industry that Beijing has threatened to dominate. The United States could also speed up its efforts to diversify essential industrial inputs away from China and toward India. New Delhi, in turn, would benefit from new economic investments.
U.S. cooperation with India must be tightly targeted to countering China.
But Washington must be careful about the ways it deals with New Delhi. It must remain keenly aware that India’s desire to work with the United States is born of circumstance, not conviction, and could quickly disappear. New Delhi, after all, spent most of the post–Cold War years vacillating about what role it should play between Beijing and Washington, and it often signed on to the former’s initiatives. Even after the border clashes, China and India have roughly the same volume of trade as India and the United States have. New Delhi is still part of the Beijing-founded Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And many Indian policymakers and analysts would much prefer a multipolar world in which India is free to navigate flexible relationships with other great powers to a world led by the United States or defined by a new cold war between Beijing and Washington—a world in which New Delhi must take sides. One of New Delhi’s greatest fears is being indefinitely consigned to the geopolitical sidelines.
For U.S. officials, then, cooperation with India must be tightly targeted to countering immediate threats posed by China. It is fine, for example, for the United States to conduct joint military exercises with India near the Chinese border, as the two states did in November 2022. It is also fine for Washington to strike transactional deals that obviously advance U.S. interests, such as a deal that gives the United States access to Indian seaports in exchange for finite technology transfers or additional intelligence. But when U.S. policies do not clearly enhance U.S.-Indian cooperation with respect to China, they should not receive the benefit of the doubt. The United States should think twice, for example, before approving a proposal General Electric put forward earlier this year to co-produce and transfer U.S. technology to India for advanced fighter jet engines. Washington may benefit from a better Indian military in the short term, but the GE deal could strengthen India’s indigenous defense industry for decades, which might not serve U.S. interests in the long term.
U.S. officials must understand that, deep down, India is not an ally. Its relationship to the United States is fundamentally unlike that of, say, a NATO member. And India will never aspire to that sort of alliance. For this reason, U.S. officials should not frame their agreements with India as the building blocks of a deeper relationship. The country is not a candidate for initiatives such as the AUKUS deal among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (which will help Australia develop nuclear submarine technologies) because such deals entail sharing important security vulnerabilities that only sturdy liberal democracies—ones with broadly shared values and aspirations—can safely exchange. India’s uncertain commitment to democratic principles is also why Washington will never be able to share intelligence with New Delhi in the way that it does with its so-called Five Eyes partners: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
In fact, Washington should qualify its support for greater Indian participation in the international organizations to which New Delhi already belongs. India’s voice is essential on the world stage, especially because of its vast and diverse society. But considering how often India and the United States diverge on important issues, it is not a bad thing that no one has taken up Obama’s proposal to offer India a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Washington should similarly temper its expectations for the Quad—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The White House clearly hopes that the Quad can be an Indo-Pacific league of liberal democracies. But given India’s identity, it simply cannot. What the Quad can do is better deter Chinese aggression in the region, and it should dedicate itself to that task.
TRUTH BE TOLD
As the Biden administration pivots away from seeking an imaginary relationship based on values to acknowledging a real one based on mutual interests, it must be forthright. The administration ought to explain to Indian and U.S. audiences alike that shared concerns about China and a wide array of other common interests create strong and constructive incentives for cooperation; there is much that the two sides can do together. But Washington needs to cease endorsing Modi’s BJP. It must stop altruistically subsidizing the rise of another illiberal Asian giant. And the Indian government should know that its domestic political decisions have the potential to complicate and endanger relations with Washington. Indian voters should know that, too.
The Biden administration should also write and publish more reports that accurately depict India’s record on human rights, freedoms, and democratic practices. Such analysis should then become required reading for U.S. leaders, including Pentagon policymakers and uniformed officers, who need to understand how undemocratic the world’s largest democracy is. These reports must be scrupulously accurate, because they will certainly draw fire from Indian diplomats. But Biden should not worry that U.S. criticism will derail cooperation. Unlike Chinese military activities, a critical report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom does not materially threaten New Delhi. If India and the United States are going to be strong partners, both sides need to learn how to navigate serious disagreements without sweeping them under the rug, even if that means suffering some unpleasantness along the way. U.S. officials can unapologetically explain the American perspective without being undiplomatic, just as their Indian counterparts frequently do.
Many U.S. opponents of the Modi government would go even further, arguing that criticism of India’s democratic shortcomings should be bolstered by active U.S. government initiatives—such as giving material support to Indian rights groups. Some critics have even encouraged Washington to withhold U.S. security cooperation unless India rolls back recent autocratic measures. But New Delhi is likely to balk at conditional defense ties, and pro-democracy investments will not be effective. India is almost unimaginably enormous and complicated, making it nearly impervious to outside political influence. As a postcolonial state, it is quite practiced at resisting, ignoring, or mitigating external interference. Better, then, to leave the task of strengthening India’s democracy to the Indians themselves.
U.S. officials must understand that, deep down, India is not an ally.
For now, that means the United States will have to deal with an unsavory government in New Delhi. But for Washington, this is nothing new. The United States has spent years cooperating with regimes it dislikes in order to bolster its security. At one point, it even worked with the country New Delhi and Washington are now trying to outcompete. The Nixon administration’s 1972 opening to China was intended to exploit the differences between Beijing and Moscow to deliver a decisive advantage to the United States in the Cold War. It succeeded: President Richard Nixon’s gambit deepened splits in the global communist movement, helped tie down Soviet army divisions along the border with China, and provided Washington with additional leverage over Moscow.
What followed, however, is much more controversial. Nixon’s opening eventually led to a deluge of U.S. investment in China’s economy and cooperation across many sectors—including, at times, defense and security. The United States’ contributions helped China quickly become the world’s second-largest economy. Washington instead should have had a greater appreciation for the ways in which U.S. and Chinese interests would most likely diverge as China’s power grew. American policymakers could have then lowered their expectations, narrowed the scope of official cooperation, and even ruled out certain types of commerce. In hindsight, it is clear they could have partnered with Beijing to contain Moscow without contributing so much to the rise of a peer competitor.
India, of course, is not China, and it may never pose the same sort of challenge. And New Delhi’s authoritarian turn has not been total. Despite the government’s best efforts, India still has free (if not fair) elections and a vocal domestic opposition. Americans and Indians can, and should, hold out hope that India’s diverse society will remake India into a liberal democracy more fundamentally aligned with the ideals that Washington seeks to uphold.
That, however, is not where India is today. The country is instead led by an ethnonationalist who tolerates little dissent. It is in thrall to an illiberal and increasingly undemocratic party, and that party’s grip on politics is only becoming firmer. Unless that changes, the United States will not be able to treat India as it treats Japan, South Korea, and NATO allies in Europe. It must instead treat India as it treats Jordan, Vietnam, and any number of other illiberal partners. It must, in other words, cooperate with India on the reality of shared interests, not on the hope of shared values.
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