By: John Elliott
Two key changes in India’s relationship with the US have emerged in the past 10 days. During a high profile visit to Washington, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced thinly veiled criticism of the way that his government is reducing the scope of India’s democratic freedoms, while the new AUKUS security alliance between the US, UK, and Australia, announced on September 17, points to a reassessment by the Biden administration of India’s potential military usefulness in the Indo-Pacific.
The criticisms, which came mainly from vice president Kamala Harris, and were less forcibly voiced by President Joe Biden, were rebutted by Modi when he addressed the UN general assembly yesterday (Sept 26).
But the reassessment of India’s security role will probably be welcomed because the country is traditionally reluctant to become tied to security alliances, especially when it is trying to find balance in its complex relationship with an increasingly aggressive China.
This has led to questions about India’s effectiveness in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad with the US, Japan, and Australia, which has been developing as a counter-force against China’s expansionism over the past four years.
Now, with AUKUS’s high-technology defense agenda against China, initially involving the development of nuclear submarines for Australia, the Quad can focus on broader, less strategic military issues, as it did when the leaders of the four countries met in Washington on September 24. That fits with India’s agenda.
Modi, whose 71st birthday was widely celebrated by his Bharatiya Janata Party across India just over a week ago, has been accustomed to being enthusiastically greeted in Washington since he came to power in 2014.
To begin with, he met a surprisingly receptive Barack Obama, and then there was his rumbustious soul mate Donald Trump. Modi and Trump would hug each other (below in 2017), and even staged what amounted to joint political rallies in each other’s countries in 2019 (Houston with Indian Americans) and 2020 (Ahmedabad) with the Indian prime minister seemingly endorsing Trump for re-election.
There is now a basic antipathy in Washington for Modi’s brand of nationalism, which is focused on building a Hindu homeland where Muslims do not have equal ranking, and where freedoms of speech and expression are harshly curbed. Former President Barack Obama said during an October 2017 visit that Muslims should feel integrated, something that “should be cherished and nurtured,” but that was to a private audience at the end of his trip after leaving Modi.
Given that background, Modi’s first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden on September 24 went well. There was no hug, but the two men grasped each other’s arms and produced all the usual platitudes about shared interests. The president even mentioned family ties with 4 million Indian Americans in the US and his relatives with the Biden name who have been found in India.
However, after saying that the meeting marked “a new chapter in the history of US-India ties,” Biden stressed the need for “democratic values” and added that the messages of “non-violence and tolerance matters more than ever before”.
Kamala Harris, who has an Indian mother, was more outspoken during a public part of her meeting with Modi (above). This echoed her earlier criticisms of the government’s policies on issues such as Kashmir.
Turning to look straight at Modi (video here), she said: “As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries and around the world and that we maintain what we must do to strengthen democracies at home.”
Directly challenging Modi’s approach, she said “I know from personal experience, and from my family, of the commitment of the Indian people to democracy and to freedom, and to the work that may be done and can be done to imagine and then actually achieve our vision for democratic principles and institutions”.
Modi failed to attend a subsequent meeting (video here) that Harris held with Quad leaders, presumably because he resented being attacked in public.
His formal response was robust when he spoke at what looked (on television -pic below) like a rather sparsely attended meeting of the UN general assembly.
Sidestepping Harris’s points, Modi cited his own rise from helping his father run a tea stall to becoming prime minister as an example of Indian democracy. India, he said, was the “mother of all democracies” and its diversity was “a symbol of our strong democracy, where dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects are examples of a vibrant democracy”.
The Quad was first set up in 2007 without much impact, but it has been gradually revived since 2017 and is now seen as a key bulwark against China’s aggression with the task of “maintaining stability in the Indo Pacific”.
Six months ago, the four leaders came together for the first time in a virtual meeting – earlier contacts had mostly been between officials. The Washington meeting was the first time they had met face to face. They discussed issues such as trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and stability in the Indo-Pacific, plus the need for Afghanistan to develop without becoming a hub for terror and condemnation of Pakistan’s role in supporting terror groups.
Responding to China’s aggression, they agreed to “recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. But their future work will be on non-military areas ranging from vaccines and infrastructure to semiconductor supply, cyber security, and satellite data – all areas targeted by China.
The AUKUS deal has underlined Australia’s superior status compared with India because, though the US sells high technology defense equipment to India and has an agreement on developing nuclear power plants, it has resisted behind-the-scenes requests for nuclear submarine technology.
“An American offer of nuclear propulsion technology, such as the one made to Australia, would be welcomed in New Delhi,” said Ajai Shukla, a leading defense analyst. “However, that would carry the quid pro quo of alliance burdens, a price that India, unlike Australia is unwilling to pay.”
That goes to the nub of India’s conundrum. While it welcomes growing links with the US, including large defense orders, it resists being drawn too far into a western net, partly because it is wary of provoking China into renewed Himalayan border confrontations after major skirmishes and deaths last year. It also wants to continue placing major defense orders with Russia, which the US has tried, and failed, to stop.
India is therefore much more comfortable in the Quad, as modified by AUKUS, and the Biden administration probably respects that. The Harris-Modi clash over democracy and freedoms will however be less easily accommodated since Modi will not be softening his Hindu nationalism and all it entails and Harris’s line is seemingly unshakeable.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant. He is the author of Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, which has gone through multiple printings