The United States Needs a Democratic India as a Partner

On April 11, U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual summit that kicked off the 2+2 Dialogue, during which Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hosted their Indian counterparts. Started in 2018 as part of an effort to deepen ties between the U.S. and India, it is a tradition the Biden administration continued. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was front and center in the talks, as the United States and India have diverging views on the magnanimity of the event. India has held out on condemning Russia over the invasion, including India’s abstention from the U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Russia cease its invasion in Ukraine.

Moscow’s Hold Over New Delhi

Why is New Delhi refusing to directly criticize Moscow? For one, India is trying to maintain its neutrality between the two nuclear powers, both of which are perceived as allies, as the United States rallies its global network of democratic allies to further punish Russia. India also continues to buy energy supplies from Russia, despite pleas from the United States to halt the activity. In March, India’s state-run oil corporation bought 3 million barrels of crude oil from Russia and Indian media recently reported that Moscow was offering discounts up to 20 percent below global prices as an enticement. Interestingly, India imports approximately only 1 percent of its oil from Russia, further confounding the Biden administration on India’s insistence on buying oil from Russia to the detriment of its relationship with the United States.

India’s relationship with Russia is more defined more by defense than its energy ties. The two countries have deep and longstanding defense ties. Today, Russia provides an estimated 85 percent of India’s equipment, though reports differ on the exact figure. India also recently purchased a Russian missile defense system, much to the United States’ chagrin as the U.S. has debated imposing sanctions on its South Asian ally as a result. Rooted in its Cold War-era tradition of non-alignment, India continues this policy of non-alignment, refusing to choose between the United States and Russia.

A Muted Response

Yet, despite divergent views, the Biden administration has had a somewhat muted response to its partner’s reluctance to take sides. In spite of India’s unwillingness to directly criticize Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, irony abounds as the United States will not directly or publicly criticize India. In his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, Mr. Biden refrained from publicly pushing the issue of India’s purchase of Russian oil and gas. However, White House officials later noted that Mr. Biden privately requested that India not “accelerate the purchase of Russian oil.”

While Mr. Biden, at times, has expressed mild discontent, calling India’s stance on the war “somewhat unsettled,” he mostly lauded India for the shared democratic values that supposedly bind the two countries and emphasized the growing defense cooperation. In his inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to call India out, Mr. Biden highlights the reason he sees the U.S. alliance with India so compelling. He, like several administrations before, sees India “as an ally to challenge China’s dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.” In other words, Mr. Biden needs India to play a key role in fulfilling one of his foreign policy objectives.

Democratic Backsliding Prevails

While the Biden administration builds up its alliance with India as a means of countering China, there is another troubled area of the relationship that the administration seems willing to overlook: the democratic backsliding India has seen over the past decade since Mr. Modi took office. Since 2014, some U.S. officials and foreign policy observers note concern over the state of India’s democracy and limited human rights protection. Recently, Freedom House, a non-partisan think tank which grades each country’s political rights and civil liberties through its infamous Freedom in the World Report, demoted India’s status from “free” to “partly free.” Similarly, a Swedish research institute now labels India as an “electoral autocracy.”

Mr. Modi’s victory in 2014 brought to power the Bharatiya Janata Party, a largely Hindu nationalist political movement. Mr. Modi’s human rights record is inconsistent and wanting at best as India has seen a rise in Hindu nationalism across the country, including reports of harassment of political opponents, activists, Muslims, and judges. The Biden administration, despite its promises to restore democracy and the rule of law back to the center of foreign policy, is failing to realize that by not pressing India to uphold these supposedly shared values, the relationship with India that the Biden administration holds in such high esteem is actually eroding the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights.

What about the Quad?

Despite the country’s democratic backsliding and U.S. concerns regarding human rights, the South Asian country remains critical to U.S. efforts toward countering China. India is a member of the Quad – a group of four democracies in the Indo-Pacific region that maintain close ties to the United States and have expressed concern over China’s growing assertiveness. The Biden administration utilizes the Quad as a forum for addressing China’s increasingly militaristic ambitions in the region, but the leaders of the Quad countries also spoke recently about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden administration is using the Quad as a cover to avoid discussing in earnest U.S. concerns over the state of democracy and human rights within India as India’s unwillingness to call out Russia for its egregious acts in Ukraine will likely hinder India’s ties with its Quad allies. By papering over such concerns through India’s inclusion in what many would call a form of an alliance, the United States is, in turn, legitimizing the Modi regime and further highlighting the administration’s reticence in confronting its partner for fear the U.S. will lose its cooperation on both China and Russia, the two current central focuses in U.S. foreign policy.

The United States Needs a Strong and Democratic India

The United States has long held close relations with India. While not a defense treaty ally, the Biden administration sees India as key to its objective of countering China. India is also factoring into the United States and its allies’ fight against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, with the United States doing what it can to persuade India to join other democracies around the world in punishing Russia. However, by not confronting India on its democratic backsliding and limited human rights, the United States is actually hindering its ability to restore democracy to the center of its foreign policy as well as in its fight against both China and Russia. The United States needs a strong, democratic India that protects the human rights of all its citizens as its partner to take on the new challenges the world faces.  

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