India’s Illiberal Turn Won’t Shake Its Relationship With the United States


Mobs roamed New Delhi’s streets as Trump and Modi talked, but the partnership remains robust.

By Michael Kugelman | 7 March 2020

Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India has come and gone. As expected, it was a grand spectacle. The optics of the U.S. president and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking before tens of thousands of cheering supporters in a cavernous cricket stadium won’t soon be forgotten. Yet also as expected, the trip produced no major announcements; last-ditch efforts to finalize a trade deal before Trump’s arrival were unsuccessful.

In fact, the biggest headline generated during the trip was the deadly religious violence that convulsed areas of New Delhi barely 10 miles from where Trump and Modi were meeting. It was the worst communal strife the capital has seen in years.

Critics argue that the United States should not hedge its strategic bets with an increasingly authoritarian and chauvinistic Indian government, especially given that the Modi administration is aggressively carrying out Hindu-nationalist policies that discriminate against the country’s large Muslim minority. This policy is playing out in an increasingly intolerant and violent political and social environment.

This volatile state of affairs was on stark display during Trump’s brief time in New Delhi, when the capital was shaken by riots for several days. Armed Hindu mobs roamed the streets with impunity and attacked Muslims while the police—who in New Delhi report to the national government—often stood by doing nothing. Muslim mobs staged attacks as well, and both Hindus and Muslims died. There were also reports of mobs asking people to prove their religion. By Feb. 27, the death toll from the unrest was at nearly 40 people.

The unrest began soon after a politician from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) warned of consequences if police didn’t clear the streets of peaceful protesters, many of them Muslims opposed to the government’s new citizenship law, within three days. During the height of the riots, video emerged of another local BJP politician marching through the streets flanked by supporters who were chanting Hindu nationalist slogans, using a profanity to refer to people who had attacked police, and calling for them to be shot. Until issuing a brief statement on Twitter on Feb. 26, several days after the riots began, calling for peace and unity, Modi’s response to the unrest—as has so often been the case following communal and political violence in recent months—was radio silence.

However, don’t expect this recent unrest, and New Delhi’s turn away from the secular and pluralistic traditions that have long undergirded Indian democracy, to have an impact on U.S. thinking on the relationship. The U.S. government doesn’t use democratic principles or respect for human rights as criteria for its strategic partners (think Israel and Saudi Arabia today, or the anti-communist dictatorships of previous years). More broadly, rights and democracy concerns don’t drive contemporary U.S. thinking on foreign policy, especially under the Trump administration.

U.S. officials may give lip service to the importance of shared democratic values in U.S.-India relations, but at the end of the day, it’s the cold, hard shared strategic interests that count the most. Unsurprisingly, while U.S. officials do express concerns privately about what is playing out domestically in India, they express no desire to rethink the relationship (on Feb. 27, the U.S. State Department issued a mildly worded reaction to the riots, calling on “all parties to maintain peace, refrain from violence, and respect the right of freedom of assembly.”).

In fact, Trump’s two days in India underscore just how robust the partnership is today.

Consider, first of all, that a notoriously transactional president averse to long-distance travel flew more than 7,000 miles for a state visit that didn’t include a major deal. Yes, Modi won Trump over with promises of pomp and pageantry. But that’s not a tactic that the savvy Indian premier uses with just any world leader. Modi is selective in his deployment of spectacular events. He uses them to bolster his ties with leaders of countries that hold strategic significance for India. Think of his splashy summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the red carpet treatment he extends to his annual Republic Day chief guests—which in recent years have included the presidents of Brazil, South Africa, France, and the United States.

The U.S.-India relationship, messy during the Cold War when Washington was allied with India’s rival Pakistan and New Delhi was nonaligned, began strengthening in the early 1990s as India embraced economic liberalization. But the relationship has really taken off since the early 2000s. Shared strategic concerns about China’s rise and Pakistan-based terrorism have generated bipartisan support for deep partnership in both capitals. Not surprisingly, in his public messaging during his trip, Trump took some subtle swipes at Beijing and amplified the shared U.S.-India goal of combating terrorism.

In the Trump era, sustained high-level dialogues—from working groups on security and non-security themes to the so-called 2+2 dialogue between each country’s top defense and diplomatic official—have fostered additional trust and goodwill, and paved the way for a slew of bilateral achievements. These accomplishments, comprehensively chronicled in a recent commentary by India analyst Jeff M. Smith, include military agreements that facilitate better communication; expanded military exercises; surges in U.S. oil exports to India; a parliamentary exchange program; and programs that entail cooperation on disaster relief, the training of international peacekeepers, and intelligence sharing on maritime traffic.

CAA protests
India’s Muslims Are Terrified of Being Deported . Many Indians lack the documents needed to prove citizenship—and Muslims are in the firing line.

Add to that list the deliverables from Trump’s visit. These include a naval helicopter deal and new U.S. financing for Indian clean energy projects. There were also pledges to step up cooperation in areas ranging from counternarcotics and cybersecurity to (important given coronavirus fears) disease outbreaks. A joint statement outlined a wide range of topics ripe for collaboration—attesting to the depth and multifaceted nature of U.S.-India relations.

This all constitutes an impressive balance sheet for a relationship that has actually confronted ample challenges over the Trump era. Indeed, to get a sense of the soundness of the U.S.-India relationship, it’s useful to take stock of all that’s gone wrong bilaterally in recent years—and how little it’s hurt the partnership overall.

First, there is the laundry list of Trump-patented tension points: his description of India as a “tariff king,” his gripe that India has done “absolutely nothing” to mitigate climate change, his complaint that India doesn’t offer enough assistance in Afghanistan, his mocking of Modi’s accent, and his long silence after the fatal shootings of several Indian Americans.

There have also been problematic policies. The Trump administration has threatened to dismantle a visa program that has disproportionately benefited Indian nationals. It has also improved relations with Pakistan substantially. Meanwhile, New Delhi has purchased a missile defense system from Russia, a move that could hypothetically trigger U.S. sanctions, and gave a nod to China’s Huawei to participate in 5G network trials. New Delhi also stopped importing oil from Iran—a considerable sacrifice for energy-starved India, given that Tehran was once a top supplier—because of U.S. sanctions. And India’s actions in Kashmir have arguably provoked the loudest condemnations of Indian policy on Capitol Hill since 1998, when New Delhi staged nuclear weapons tests.

And then there are the commercial tensions, which are not new, but have been particularly serious of late. Last year, Washington ended India’s preferential trade privileges and threatened an investigation of its trade practices. In January, Washington inked a trade deal with China, its top strategic rival, but has struggled for months to pull the trigger on a more modest accord with a key strategic partner.

In effect, the U.S.-India relationship has suffered through crude insults, harsh criticism, threats of punishment, dalliances with each other’s rivals, and failed negotiations. And yet it hasn’t only survived, it has thrived—as evidenced by the recent love fest on display between Trump and Modi.

Outside of the moral concerns about U.S.-India relations, though, there have also been practical ones. One of the most frequent criticisms is that New Delhi, on a purely transactional level, hasn’t given much to Washington. This is a comment often made by Pakistani interlocutors, who note that Islamabad by contrast has helped the United States fight communists in Afghanistan; given Washington use of its military bases to launch drone strikes; allowed NATO forces in Afghanistan to use Pakistani soil as supply routes; and most recently facilitated talks between the United States and the Taliban.

This critique misses the point—and overlooks the intelligence New Delhi shares with Washington and the Indian logistical support, including refueling for naval vessels, provided to the U.S. military. U.S. policy goals with Islamabad—at least for now—tend to be short-term and tactical, while those with India are more strategic and positioned for the long game. Washington views New Delhi as its best strategic bet in South Asia, and aims to enlist India as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China’s power and presence in Asia.

This makes sense for many reasons. India’s size, location, strong military, and its own strategic rivalry with Beijing loom large in this calculus. Additionally, India, like the United States, has a policy of stepped-up engagement with East Asia (New Delhi has an Act East policy, Washington has an Indo-Pacific strategy), and the two capitals share the same vision of a free, open, and rules-based region. The Trump administration has also indicated that its geographic conception of the Indo-Pacific—a senior U.S. official described it last month as stretching from “California to Kilimanjaro”—is evolving so that it is in lockstep with India’s.

This isn’t to say the U.S-India relationship is invulnerable. If the Modi government’s social agenda leads to sustained unrest and becomes too much of a distraction for New Delhi to focus on pursuing its shared strategic goals with Washington, then there could be problematic implications for bilateral relations.

Additionally, should a Democrat win the presidency later this year, expect more pushback and pressure on India about its human-rights record and domestic policies. This wouldn’t torpedo the relationship, but it would create new strain and cause cracks to form in the relationship’s bipartisan armor.

Finally, Washington and New Delhi see eye to eye on the China threat, but they differ on how to tackle it. India is still hesitant to provide the level of operational assistance (including joint patrols) that the United States expects from its strategic partners. New Delhi’s complex relations with Beijing—they are bitter strategic rivals but close economic partners—may limit how much it’s willing to work with Washington to push back against Chinese power. If these apparent disconnects tied to such a critical shared interest aren’t addressed, there could be problems down the road.

Still, for now, all is quite well on the U.S.-India front. Despite many bumps, it is one of the few key U.S. bilateral relationships that has not suffered in a big way during the Trump era, a very turbulent one for U.S. foreign policy. It’s not as foolproof as the soaring rhetoric during Trump’s visit would suggest, but it’s in a relatively stable place—a welcome relief for its backers, and an ugly truth for its detractors.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at [email protected] 

The article appeared in the Foreign Policy Magazine on February 28, 2020.