Relations between the U.S. and India are flying into a new era on the wings of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's triumphant visit to Washington. Modi hit all the right notes in advancing a seemingly tight relationship between the world's oldest and the world's biggest democracies.
While making deals on investment, trade and much else, however, Modi stopped short of endorsing anything like a real alliance, much less support for Ukraine and NATO against Russian invasion. Nor did he mention the troubling issues between India and China, despite border wars going back more than 60 years.
The upshot is bound to be an ambivalent relationship in which the two sides hassle over India's real diplomatic and military priorities while engaged in what are likely to be sometimes difficult negotiations on trade and investment.
In a relationship marked by ups and downs, however, Modi's day in Washington was a high point that's bound to reflect the outlook for the near future. President Biden summarized the tone at a state dinner at the White House at which he toasted "Two great nations, two great friends, and two great powers." Modi, extolling the India-America relationship, said, "You are soft spoken, but when it comes to action, you are very strong."
Through all the happy talk, Modi veered close to appearing to align New Delhi with Washington against Russia. While playing up tight ties with America in a wide range of fields, however, he dropped shrewdly-honed phrases that left no doubt he was not giving up India's historic neutrality in the Great Game for power and influence in Asia.
"Now the U.S. has become one of our most important defense partners," he said in his address to a joint session of Congress. Avoiding the concept of a real alliance, hyping deals with the Americans, he gave no sign of forsaking India's reliance on Russia for a wide range of arms, including most of its fighter planes.
"Today India and the U.S. are working together in space and the seas, in science and semiconductors," he went on, rattling off a list of areas of tight partnership. "The scope of our cooperation is endless, the potential of our synergy is limitless."
Adding substance to the verbiage, during Modi's three-day visit, Indians and Americans signed off on agreements ranging from jet engines to supply chains. But Modi was just as clear in his pursuit of peace to the exclusion of joining in the war in Ukraine or risking conflict in Asia.
President Biden, shying away from the question of India's relationship with Russia, played on "the unlimited potential" of the entire India-American relation. "Together we're unlocking the shared future," he said at a briefing and press conference with Modi after their one-on-one conversation in the White House.
Biden said India and America were "growing our defense partnership with more exercises" while "trade between our countries has doubled over the past decade" and Indian firms were announcing more than $2 billion in investments.
Biden and Modi both dealt subtly with the hypersensitive issue of human rights - a topic that Modi's critics have raised with increasing intensity amid the pomp and circumstance of his visit. Please remember, say the critics, that he was banned from traveling to America for a decade, from 2005 to 2015, because of bloody repression of Muslims when he was governor of the state of Gujarat.
Biden glossed over that entire question, saying that India and America were "celebrating the value of universal human rights" while Indian-Americans "of every faith and background are pursuing the American dream."
Modi, addressing the issue of war and peace through negotiations and diplomacy, sought to convince the skeptics of India's role as a democracy whose citizens were treated equally regardless of religious, cultural or linguistic differences. "Democracy is in our DNA, democracy is in our spirit, democracy runs in our veins," he said in answer to a question at his appearance with Biden after their one-on-one conversation. "Democracy can deliver. There is no space for discrimination."
Modi issued that defense of Indian democracy in the face of accusations of intimidation and repression of political foes, of newspapers and of opposition parties that might undermine his power since he became prime minister nine years ago.
"It's shameful that Modi has been given a platform at our nation's capital," tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). "His long history of human rights abuses, anti-democratic actions, targeting Muslims & religious minorities, and censoring journalists is unacceptable."
Modi spoke in equally impassioned words in his speech to Congress before an audience that did not include Tlaib and five other members who boycotted his speech and issued a statement vowing never to "sacrifice human rights at the altar of political expediency."
In his address, Modi evinced the opposite view. "Democracy is one of our signature and shared values," he said, finding common cause with America. "India is geared to have such values from time immemorial. India is the mother of democracy. The U.S. is the oldest and India is the largest democracy." In India, he said, "diversity is a way of life."
There was no hint in Modi's oratory of India's deep-seated caste differences, of immense poverty, of the gulf between rich and poor, much less of his own background as a Hindu nationalist leading a country of 1.4 billion people that includes a Muslim minority of 200 million.
Rather, Modi sought to project himself as a unifying figure who was taking his country down a peaceful path in a dangerous world. "This is not an era of war," he said. "It is one of dialogue and diplomacy. We all must do what we can to stop the bloodshed and human suffering."
Modi barely mentioned Ukraine and said not a word about China, with which Indian forces have engaged in intermittent clashes along their borders in the Himalayas for decades. The closest he came to hinting at Chinese aggression was to observe that "the dark clouds of confrontation" were hanging over the Indo-Pacific.
"It's a free and open Indo-Pacific," he said, where power "is not leveraged for strategic purposes" and "we must overcome all forces sponsoring and exporting terror." It was the bond between India and America as democracies, however imperfect, that provided the basis for Modi's emotional appeal in Congress and at the White House, where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute.
"We come from different histories, but we are united by a common vision," he said to a standing ovation in the Congress. "Democracy will shine brighter, and the world will be a better place."
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.
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