Twenty years ago, when the US administration embraced Pakistan as a key ally in its “Global War on Terror”, it led to consternation across the Indian policy space. Now, as the US hosts the most virulently anti-democratic leader India has ever produced as part of its “defence of democracies against authoritarianism”, a similar level of consternation grips democracy activists.
Just as then, the calls of hypocrisy – however legitimate – are unlikely to substantially impact US policy, and honestly, they should not.
The government of the United States, whatever be its pretensions, exists not to be morally superior or ethically consistent. Its main job is to pursue what it defines as its domestic interests both internally as well as on the global stage.
After the September 2001 attacks, it defined those goals as to destroy any global terrorist organisation that could credibly threaten American interests. Since al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, and Pakistan had the greatest access to the country – geographically and ideologically – it made logical sense for the US to engage with it. No amount of moral outrage by Indians made a jot of difference in that calculation.
Similarly, the US has now defined its greatest threat as an alliance of like-minded authoritarian leaders, led by – or at least supported by – the Chinese Communist Party that challenges a US-centric system of economic and military power. This is most clearly threatened in the Pacific, with Chinese sea power increasingly pushing back against established US influence around Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia and Australia.
It makes eminent sense for the US, therefore, to bolster up its alliance with India, to complicate China’s expanding power with a threat to its western front as it expands on its eastern front.
With a large military, the world’s largest border dispute and its own aspirations for global relevance, India makes an ideal pawn to distract China from its eastern expansionism. And if India buys more and more American-made high-worth military technology, all the better.
In the cold calculus of national interest, the decline of democracy and the violation of human rights are footnotes that are rarely read.
But it is worth noting that the US lost its war in Afghanistan. The Taliban is back in power, and the Haqqanis – the key patrons of Osama bin Laden, who argued for keeping him on despite the anger of Mullah Omar against bin Laden’s attacks on US targets – are part of the ruling regime.
There are many reasons why the US had to finally leave Afghanistan in disarray. These strategic mistakes included an overreliance on warlords and aerial strikes, the illegal invasion of Iraq and the fact that its key partner – Pakistan – had dramatically different strategic interests. Indian criticisms of the US-Pakistan partnership in Afghanistan proved to be correct, if for reasons other than morality and hypocrisy.
It is worth asking if the US is making another strategic miscalculation in publicly embracing Modi in its pursuit of national interest. In his two terms in office, Modi’s policies have significantly weakened India as a regional actor and empowered China as a South Asian actor.
The ill-conceived 2015 blockade of trade into Nepal accelerated the role of China in Nepal. The 2019 actions in Kashmir had multiple negative repercussions. Sri Lanka publicly declared that now India had no locus standi on Tamilian demands for regional autonomy. It put paid to any likelihood of a rapprochement with Pakistan, firmly integrating it in the China camp.
China strongly protested the redrawing of international borders, possibly leading to the 2020 border clash in Galwan. Strikingly, when the Chinese unceremoniously undid Hong Kong’s autonomy, India had not one word to say.
Similarly, the many mistakes with the economy – the backing of national champions like Gautam Adani despite significant threats to key security infrastructure, the involvement of Anil Ambani in the controversial Rafale deal, botched initiatives like demonetisation and the three farm laws that had to be rolled back, and the mishandling of the pandemic – have left India weaker as a whole.
Across South Asia, including in India, the imports from and economic dependence on China have increased dramatically, while the Indian economy has struggled to deal with the consequences of one hare-brained “masterstroke” or another.
Most strikingly, while Modi poses for cameras doing yoga in the US, he has ignored the roiling violence in Manipur, with dozens dead, tens of thousands displaced, and as Manvendra Singh notes, BSF personnel possibly being picked off by snipers – reports point to a fairly effective rifle of a non-AK 47 variety – at a distance of 300-400 yards.
Modi has said and done little or nothing to stem this violence, while the BJP and the Sangh are credibly accused of stoking the violence.
Under Modi’s rule, India has become a weaker power, distracted by challenges internally, struggling economically and sidelined by China in its own region both economically and strategically. An internally peaceful, economically vibrant and regionally relevant power, one with the democratic credentials to influence opinion in the region and abroad, could possibly be a credible threat to China.
A divided, poor and isolated India is not. Either way, simply because of the sheer size of numbers and the scale of its economy, the US has to engage with India, but it is not in its national interest to valorise a leader who is making India a potentially weaker partner than not.
If China decides to become militarily aggressive in Taiwan or the wider Pacific region, what possible role would India under Modi fulfil? He has shown that, with a limited amount of aggression, China can make him declare that nobody breached India’s borders. He has certainly lost for India any credibility to speak about democratically autonomous regions like Taiwan.
Against the reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all he could summon up was a weakly worded statement that this was not an age of war, hardly words to make those who wish to engage in militarily expansionist adventures tremble in their socks.
The hard question to ask US policymakers is why those boosting India-US relations such as Ashley Tellis, have now come to the conclusion that it is a “bad bet”. The answer is, very simply, Narendra Modi. Encouraging the very leader who has weakened India’s possibilities as a key player by pandering to his vanity is not in the national interest of the US.
The interests of the US and India may align in the longer-term against the challenge of a Chinese-led order, but the interests of Narendra Modi do not. If the US cannot tell the difference, or refuses to see it, then it is asking for yet another humiliation in South Asia.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.