Realpolitik and Rhetoric: PM Modi’s 'First Official State Visit' to the US

Of the 114 foreign visits Modi has made to over 60 countries since he came to power in 2014, he has visited the US seven times already. Yet, this will be his first official state visit to the US

Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images)
Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images)

Bhavin Kakkar

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-24 June visit to the United States at the invitation of President Joe Biden is being hailed by both New Delhi and Washington as one that will open up a new era of synergistic relations between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s largest economy.

The two countries cooperate on a wide range of diplomatic, economic and security issues. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted: "The visit will strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific, and our shared resolve to elevate our strategic technology partnership, including in defence, clean energy, and space."

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said of the two leaders, "They would reflect on their shared vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and discuss opportunities to expand and consolidate the Quad engagement." The Quad, officially known as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, was formed in 2006 by the US, India, Australia and Japan as an "informal strategic coalition" against China’s powerplay in the Indo-Pacific.

Of the 114 foreign visits the Prime Minister has made to over 60 countries since he came to power in 2014, he has visited the US seven times already, not having gone so many times to any other country. Yet, this will be his first official state visit to the US, the highest level of diplomatic reception that involves a state dinner on 22 June, his earlier visits having been characterised as official or working visits. Modi is also scheduled to address a gathering of Indian Americans on 23 June 'on the role of the Indian diaspora in India’s growth story'.

The Prime Minister, however, does not enjoy a fulsome rapport with President Biden as he did with the previous Republican President, Donald Trump, whom he had not only introduced at the "Howdy Modi" rally at Houston’s NRG Stadium in 2019 as "my friend, a friend of India", but had also cheered for his 2020 re-election bid for the White House by declaring abki baar, Trump sarkar (now, a Trump administration).

Biden’s interactions with Modi seem to convey that his administration lacks a coherent policy on India. At his first meeting with the President at the White House in 2021, Modi was made conscious of the unflattering perceptions within the Biden administration of his government and of his own style of governance that had noted a democratic backsliding in India under his rule.

Indeed, a coalition of 17 civil rights organisations in the US wrote to President Biden on 7 June, urging him to reconsider his state dinner invitation to the Prime Minister. "The invitation to Modi as a state guest signals that the US supports India’s crackdown on fundamental democratic rights and emboldens the Modi administration to intensify its anti-democratic agenda," the letter stated.

In its 2022 report released ahead of the Prime Ministerial visit, the US State Department’s Office of International Religious

Freedom too cited numerous reports of violence in India by law enforcement authorities against religious minorities, and reported, "Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states throughout the year."

While releasing the 2021 edition of the annual report last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called India a country where "religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities are under threat", pointing out that this threat was "due to rising attacks on places of worship".

India repeatedly refutes these reports, MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi commenting, "Regrettably, such reports continue to be based on misinformation and flawed understanding." He added though that while such statements were "motivated", India still valued its relationship with the US and would continue to have "frank exchanges" on issues surrounding religious freedom.

Indeed, Blinken himself had mentioned in 2021: "The United States and India are working together on so many of the most important challenges of our time and ones that are having a profound impact on the lives of our citizens. The partnership between the United States and India is vital, it’s strong, and it’s increasingly productive."

Biden has centrestaged the defence of democracy across the world, and while visiting Canada in March, had said that his "strategic goal" was to improve relations with the rest of the world as he felt that America’s leverage against China and Russia was through its alliances. "I have now met with 80% of the world leaders just since I’ve been president," he said.

He considers India — the most populous country and a rising economic power — a key player in the Quad but desires it to be unequivocal as regards the US-aligned democracies or the autocratic axis led by Russia and China. The President might seek to wrest an unambiguous commitment from the Prime Minister on current geopolitics, as on Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s rising belligerence, especially when Moscow has raised the ante by announcing the deployment in July of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus that neighbours Ukraine, and when China has threatened the US.

“The US should change its recent mistaken policies towards China, or conflict and confrontation will follow,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told a news conference in Beijing in March, viewing as “seriously distorted” Washington’s perception of China as its “primary rival and the most consequential geopolitical challenge”.

Biden had last year publicly called India’s response to Russia’s war “shaky”, but New Delhi has its limitations and treads a fine line between Russia and the US-led NATO alliance. India has repeatedly abstained from voting on UN resolutions condemning Russia and declined participation in the global coalition against Russia as it enjoys strategic partnerships with both Russia and the US that are respectively its first and second largest vendors of arms, the country being the world’s largest importer of weaponry.

The Modi government considers India an ancient civilisation with expansive influence that is reclaiming its rightful place on the world stage, and believes the country does not need lessons on democratic functioning.

In his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, released in 2020, India’s Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar observes that the notion of “a universal and invincible globalised order led by the US” was merely “a transient moment of American unipolarity”, and that

the idea of an “end of history” was an “arrogant assertion of an era of hubris” based on a “Eurocentric analysis”.

Similarly, many in India within and outside the government resented the March appointment of Biden loyalist and former Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, as the US ambassador to India. At his confirmation hearings in 2021, Garcetti had said he would “actively raise” human rights issues in India, in response to a question about the Citizenship Amendment Act, which Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had legislated in 2019 and which seeks to criminalise Muslim settlers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as “illegal migrants”, while allowing other communities from these countries to apply for Indian citizenship.

Garcetti maintained he would “engage directly with civil society”, pointing out, “There are groups that are actively fighting for human rights…they will get direct engagement from me.”

India has resisted Western pressure to freeze out Moscow, and has instead strengthened its trade ties with its long-standing ally, from which it secures discounted crude. According to the International Energy Agency, India imported 1.96 million barrels a day from Russia in May, 15 per cent more than the previous high in April and almost half its total oil imports, up from just one per cent of inflows from Russia before the latter attacked Ukraine in February last year. India has consequently become the key oil supplier to Europe to which it sells the crude after refining it.

While Biden is also perhaps mindful of the fact that Modi has been unable to raise with Chinese President Xi Jinping the issue of thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops yet occupying several border areas after they overran India’s border

Union Territory of Ladakh in May 2020. The Modi regime seems to lack a coherent strategy against Chinese belligerence, as it also appears unable to counter further Chinese cross-border transgressions in India’s other border states of Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. 

In March 2022, then US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster had said, “The restraint in mentioning China in any US-India communication or any Quad communication comes from India, which is very concerned about not poking China in the eye,” he had mentioned.

India, in fact, has a business-as-usual approach to China, with bilateral trade soaring to an all-time high of $135.98 billion last year, driven by a 21 per cent rise in imports into India that registered a trade deficit crossing $100 billion with Beijing for the first time, according to data released by the Chinese customs.

This marked an 8.4 per rise over the $125 billion worth of two-way trade registered the year before.  In contrast, India’s trade with the US was worth $128.55 billion in 2022-23, a 7.65 per cent increase over that of $119.5 billion the year before. India’s trade with Russia too reached a record $44.4 billion in 2022-2023, surpassing targets set by the leadership of the two countries.

India’s imports from Russia surged almost fivefold to $41.56 billion due to the ballooning crude oil imports from that country, according to India’s Commerce ministry data. Russia has become India's fourth largest import source in the first 11 months of the current fiscal.

US-India defence cooperation has also reached new highs, including through information sharing, liaison officers, increasingly complex exercises like Malabar, and defence enabling agreements, such as the secure communications agreement COMCASA. India conducts more military exercises with the US than with any other country, and as of 2020, Washington has authorised over $20 billion in defence sales to India.

The first American President to have visited India twice during his tenure, Barack Obama had written in New York Times in 2010 how critical India’s economic power was to the US. “In fact, every $1 billion we export supports more than 5,000 jobs at home,” he wrote.

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