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Idealism and pragmatism have long made rival claims on American foreign policy, forcing hard choices and sometimes leading to disappointment. There was a moment in the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union looked to clear the way for a universal political and economic order, but that chimera soon gave way to the more complex world we inhabit today, in which the ideals of liberal democracy — often in otherwise well-functioning democracies — sometimes seem to be in conflict with the popularity of strongmen leaders, the desire for security or the forces of xenophobia or grievance.
For American presidents and policymakers, this poses a challenge; it is no longer enough to champion the ideals of liberal democracy and count on the rest of the world to follow. Lecturing any country, be it global powers like Russia or China or regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, can embolden autocratic tendencies; engagement can, at least sometimes, lead to further dialogue and space for diplomacy. Advancing American ideals requires being pragmatic and even accommodating when our democratic partners fall short of the mark — and humility about where the United States falls short, too.
India is a democracy in which the world’s biggest electorate openly and freely exercises the fundamental right to choose its leader. Its population is the largest in the world, and its economy is now the fifth largest in the world; its vast diaspora wields huge influence, especially in American business. With its history of close relations with Moscow, long and sometimes contested border with China and strategic location in a highly volatile neighborhood, India is destined to be a critical player in geopolitics for decades to come. Mr. Modi, the prime minister since 2014, commands sky-high popularity ratings and a secure majority in his Parliament, and is in the enviable position of leading a country with a relatively young, growing population.
While India has a long history of wariness toward America — most of its military equipment comes from the Soviet Union and Russia, and it would prefer to steer clear of direct involvement in the U.S.-China rivalry — senior American officials believe that India’s views of the United States have fundamentally improved in recent years.
This is partly through the work of the dynamic Indian diaspora, partly through greater strategic partnership, and partly because of the growing interest by American companies in India as an alternative to China for expansion in Asia. India has joined the United States, Japan and Australia in the “Quad,” an informal grouping that seeks to counter China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region. And hundreds of American business and industry leaders will gather to meet with Mr. Modi this week. The visit is expected to include major deals to build American jet engines in India and to sell American drones.
So it is not hard to fathom why India’s leader is getting rock-star treatment in Washington, from a state dinner at the White House to an address on Capitol Hill. President Biden is right to acknowledge the potential of America’s partnership with India using all the symbolism and diplomatic tools at his disposal.
But Mr. Biden cannot ignore the other, equally significant, changes in India during the last nine years: Under Mr. Modi and his right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, India has witnessed a serious erosion of the civil and political rights and democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Mr. Modi and his allies have been accused of policies that target and discriminate against religious minorities, especially India’s 200 million Muslims, and of using the power of the state to punish rivals and silence critics. Raids on political opponents and dissenting voices have become frequent; the mainstream news media has been diminished; the independence of courts and other democratic institutions has been eroded — all to a chorus of avowals from the B.J.P. that it is acting strictly within the law.
In March, a court in Mr. Modi’s home state sentenced the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to a two-year prison term for defaming the prime minister; though Mr. Gandhi has not been jailed, the sentence led to his expulsion from Parliament, and will most likely prevent him from running again. Before that, in January, the Modi government used emergency laws to limit access to a BBC documentary that reexamined damning allegations that Mr. Modi played a role in murderous sectarian violence in Gujarat State 20 years ago, when he was chief minister there. As this editorial board warned, “When populist leaders invoke emergency laws to block dissent, democracy is in peril.”
This remains true, and it behooves Mr. Biden and every other elected official and business leader who meet with the Indian delegation this week to make sure that a discussion of shared democratic values is on the agenda.
That may be a tall order. Mr. Modi has demonstrated a prickly intolerance for criticism and may still harbor resentment from the nearly 10 years he was effectively barred from traveling to the United States for allegations of “severe violations of religious freedom” over the Gujarat violence. (He has repeatedly denied involvement, and the visa ban was lifted by the Obama administration when Mr. Modi became prime minister.) A public scolding from the White House, especially when the United States is wrestling with its own threats to democracy, would serve little purpose except to anger the Indian public.
Nevertheless, Mr. Biden and other American officials should be willing to have a forthright, if sometimes uncomfortable, discussion with their Indian counterparts. America’s own struggles are humbling proof that even the most established democracies are not immune to problems. As Human Rights Watch notes in a letter to Mr. Biden: “U.S. officials can point to how the U.S. political system has itself struggled with toxic rhetoric, while working to maintain an open and free media. These topics can be discussed openly and diplomatically in both directions.”
The administration also faces the problem that the United States’ democratic credentials have been tarnished by Donald Trump and the possibility that he may be back in the White House before long. Mr. Trump’s politics have been openly hailed as inspiration by many an elected autocrat — including Mr. Modi, whose magnetism Mr. Trump likened to Elvis Presley’s at a rally in Houston on an official visit in 2019.
President Biden knows, from his many years in public service, that there will always be points of friction even in the closest partnerships between nations, let alone in relationships with leaders who have a very different view of the world. And senior U.S. government officials say that the administration is keenly aware of the flaws of the Modi government. Yet they believe that India’s vital role on the global stage supersedes concerns about one leader. Far better, they say, to raise concerns in private; and they insist they have raised them in many difficult conversations, and said they would raise them in this week’s meetings with Mr. Modi.
It is essential that they are raised. India has shaped a great and complex democracy out of a rich panoply of people, languages and religious traditions, and it is reaching for a more prominent role in global affairs.
But it is also critical to make clear that intolerance and repression run counter to everything that Americans admire in India, and threaten the partnership with the United States that its prime minister is actively seeking to strengthen and deepen. America wants and needs to embrace India; but Mr. Modi should be left with no illusion about how dangerous his autocratic leanings are, to the people of India and for the health of democracy in the world.