Both Democracies, But India-US Differences Nagging – OpEd

By Subir Bhaumik

The world has heard enough of those cliche — cooperation between the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, and the world’s most populous democracy, India, is touching new heights. So much so that India’s controversial Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to the extent of backing Donald Trump’s back to power campaign by openly exhorting Indian-Americans to vote for him by his now famous slogan “Ab ki bar, Trump Sarkar” (this time on, Trump government again).

When Joe Biden and not Donald Trump won the US presidency, Modi’s spin doctors worked overtime to make amends. An initially unforgiving Democrat administration sought to pin down Modi on the rights issue.

Reports on religious freedom and human rights by US congressional committees and influential think tanks indicated ‘deepening US concerns’ over PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)  making India less tolerant of minorities, especially Muslims.

Modi’s 2019 revocation of the special semi-autonomous status—granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution—to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir has been followed by repressive government policies in Kasmir such as curbs to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and other basic rights. These have found pointed mentions in US government reports and those by think tanks, some close to the US deep state.

Later that year, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, providing a fast track for non-Muslims in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to become Indian citizens—a move that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned as “a significant downward turn in religious freedom in India.” After being held up for years because of numerous protests, the law finally went into effect this March. In January, Modi’s inauguration of a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya, known as Ram Mandir, built on the ruins of the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque that Hindu nationalists tore down in 1992, raised fresh questions about India’s future as a secular and tolerant nation.

American deep state bigwigs tell their Indian counterparts that partnering with India holds immense promise, particularly when it comes to fine-tuning Washington’s strategy to counter China. But Modi’s foreign minister S Jaishanker has never hesitated to hit back at US institutions who have pulled Delhi on issues like religious freedom, human rights (especially with regard to minorities) and the “general decline in democracy standards”.

“Despite widespread optimism about the future of the U.S.-India partnership, relations are considerably more fragile than they might appear. Indeed, the two countries continue to experience friction in several areas that, if left unaddressed, could ultimately undermine or even derail future cooperation,” said policy analyst Derek Grossmann, known for his close links to the administration and the deep state.

Many policymakers in Washington continue to be concerned that Modi and the BJP have transformed India into an illiberal democracy. In 2021, Freedom House downgraded India’s score from “free” to “partly free,” citing “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population.” Freedom House further observed in this year’s report that Modi’s government engages in the “harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics” and that “the BJP has increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents.”

Grossmann points out rightly that “all of these activities have grown under Modi, who is up for reelection in April and will likely win in a landslide. For their part, Indians also worry about the state of U.S. democracy, given such events as the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.”

And Indian policymakers like foreign minister S Jaishankar have come up with acerbic “tend to your own house and mind your own business” type comments aimed at the US that does not go down well in Washington.

Last week, the Indian government upped the ante by arresting Modi critic and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of the Delhi capital territory, on alleged corruption charges. Kejriwal and another opposition politician West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who brought down the state’s long running Communist government in 2011, are known to be US favourites — so Hindu nationalists were clearly upset by U.S. criticism of the arrest, warning Washington not to interfere in India’s “internal affairs.” India was also angered when the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi invited several Kashmiri activists to its Iftar party last week.

Recent reports that India may have backed covert missions to commit extrajudicial killings in Canada and the United States have also shocked Washington—and called the idea of shared values into question. In the case in Canada, India is accused of using agents to murder the Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in 2023. Since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s shocking revelation of the allegation in September, New Delhi has complained that Ottawa refuses to offer credible evidence and labeled Canada a “safe haven for terrorists.”

India swiftly retaliated by briefly suspending visa services for Canadians worldwide and demanding that Ottawa withdraw dozens of embassy staff from India to achieve parity with the number of Indian diplomats serving in Canada. In recent months, however, New Delhi has privately been more willing to assist in the investigation, though a fresh claim by Trudeau that India engaged in election meddling in Canada could create new tensions.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has taken on India over an alleged attempt to commit an extrajudicial killing on U.S. soil. In November, prosecutors in New York unsealed an indictment charging an unnamed Indian government official with hiring a hitman to kill the leader of the organization Sikhs for Justice, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, whom India considers a terrorist. India officially denies the charges, claiming that “rogue operatives” not authorized by the Indian government were involved.

Unlike with Canada, India appears to be cooperating with U.S. authorities on the matter. Last year, the Biden administration dispatched the directors of the CIA and FBI on separate trips to discuss the Pannun case with their Indian counterparts.

But Indian policymakers and people alike are aghast at perceived US double standard that allows Washington to use drone strikes and other means to kill suspected terrorists and militants with relative impunity. National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval reminded visiting US officials (not publicly but in in-house meetings) that if the US can invade Afghanistan over the 9/11 Twin Tower strikes, India has every right to “firmly deal” with Sikh terrorists who brought an Indian airliner over the Atlantic in 1985 or Muslim terrorists responsible for the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. “Are Indian lives less important than American lives,” he brusquely told an US official accompanying Doval’s US counterpart Jake Sullivan.

The full effect of the Pannun case on the bilateral partnership is still unclear. In February, an Indian media outlet reported that U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin planned to place a hold on the U.S. sale of MQ-9 drones to India until it was clear that Modi’s government was credibly assisting the U.S. investigation. Although Cardin ultimately decided not to place a hold on the sale after months of what he called “painstaking” negotiations with the Biden administration, it is clear that there are growing unease in Capitol Hill “about recent Indian behavior that might start impacting the relationship if White House does not take a tougher line.” (Grossmann)

The US seems terribly upset over India’s bonhomie with Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine, with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar openly describing Putin’s Russia “as India’s one true friend.”

In early April 2022, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh visited New Delhi and warned of potential “consequences” for countries that attempted to undermine U.S. sanctions.

By mid-April, however, the Biden administration had dramatically changed its tune. Prior to a virtual meeting between Biden and Modi in April 2022, Biden’s press secretary noted that the two leaders would continue their “close consultations” on Russia, with no indication that Washington was prepared to take any action against New Delhi. India did not have to condemn Russia or make any other concessions, such as curbing its massive imports of cheap Russian oil. On the contrary, India has continued to strengthen its ties with Russia since then.

For its part, New Delhi also has concerns about Washington’s interests misaligning with its own. India, for example, is quietly outraged at recent U.S. contacts with Pakistan, which India views as a terrorist state. Pakistan Army chief Asim Munir visited Washington in December for high-level meetings at the Pentagon and State Department, and the Biden administration has sought to widen the partnership with Pakistan since the U.S. military withdrawal of Afghanistan to include nonsecurity issues like trade and investment.

“There is also a long legacy in India of distrust of the United States with regard to Pakistan. Indians recall a close U.S.-Pakistani alliance during the Cold War, including support for West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, when West Pakistani forces committed massacres against then-East Pakistan’s Hindu minority,” reminded Derek Grossmann in his Foreign Policy article.

Actually Indian policymakers across the political divide entertain serious reservations about US and sees it as an  ‘unreliable long-term partner.’

After the U.S. military hastily withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, India was left to pick up the pieces of its own policy in the region. The Taliban return to power has left concern that Afghanistan could return to being a playground for terrorist recruitment and training, particularly for Islamist groups specially active in its restive Kashmir region.

India’s concerns over Pakistani efforts to gain additional strategic depth in Afghanistan has led to its covert cultivation of the nationalist Taliban elements and Delhi, not Washington, would surely enjoy Af-Pak borderguard clashes.

Many Indian policymakers have worried over China’s growing influence in Afghanistan, which, they say, could have been avoided if the United States had stayed the course.

Additionally, India eyes Afghanistan’s mineral resources including rare earths as much as China does.

On Bangladesh and Myanmar, India-US differences have often surfaced sharply. The US wants PM Hasina, a staunch Indian ally so far, out of power and have tried using the rights issue to dethrone the world’s longest surviving woman leader, but India — and China and Russia– appear determine to back her.

In Myanmar, India has pushed for dialogue between all warring stakeholders to restore peace and democracy because the spiralling conflict affects India’s Look East foreign policy. But it remains worried that the US appears to be balkanizing Myanmar by supporting a host of ethnic rebel armies and the National Unity Government.