Modi's State Visit To The US, In Retrospect

Modi's State Visit To The US, In Retrospect
Thursday, 22 June 2023, was a dreary, rainy day in Washington, but the US Capital was buzzing with activity in preparation for the State visit of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. He was received with great pomp and ceremony by President Biden and the First Lady Jill Biden at the South Lawn of the White House. While a steady drizzle kept up during the festivities, it did not disrupt the celebrations. After the president and the prime minister had delivered their formal speeches, there were the usual marching bands and singing of the national anthems. The only oddity was that the welcoming ceremony was punctuated by a steady chant of Modi, Modi emanating from his supporters, mostly Indians from the diaspora community.

The display of pomp and glitz represented a sharp reversal of fortune for Modi who had been denied a visitor’s visa in 2005 by the US State Department when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. He was blamed for deliberate inaction in the face of communal riots in which thousands of Muslims lost their lives. The state department acted under a law that made foreign officials ineligible for a visa if found responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.

The Indian prime minister had a busy schedule in Washington, and reluctantly agreed to participate in a news conference, something he almost never does at home. Unexpectedly, he was confronted with an uncomfortable question by a senior reporter, Sabrina Siddiqui, who asked him about the deterioration of human rights situation in India, especially for Muslims. Modi never addressed the question directly but recounted all guarantees written in the Indian constitution for all citizens. The reporter, who works for the Wall Street Journal and happens to be an American-born Muslim with roots in Pakistan, has since come under heavy fire from Modi supporters for raising the question. The White House spokesperson ultimately came to her defence and condemned attacks on her.

Siddiqui is not the only victim. Even former president Barack Obama is being assailed by the governing party in India for suggesting in a TV interview that India might start pulling apart if the rights of minorities were not protected. Several American media critics and seventy-five Congressional leaders have also raised troubling question about the weakening of Indian democracy since the ascend of Modi as prime minister. They worry that under the doctrine of Hindutva, India is being transformed from a secular to a Hindu state.

Modi addressed the joint session of the US Congress for the second time as prime minister. His speech in English was marked with applause and standing ovations from members of Congress. A measure of the success of Indian Americans was the presence of five Congressmen in the audience who are of Indian heritage, besides the vice president, Kamala Harris. The admiration for Modi was not universal. Five liberal democratic lawmakers did not attend the session in protest of his government’s undemocratic and anti-Muslim policies. Included among them were two Muslim representatives, Ilhan Omer and Rashida Talib. In a statement, they said that they “stand in solidarity with the communities that have been harmed by Modi and his policies.” Later in the evening, the prime minister was honoured at a glittering state dinner to which over four-hundred guests were invited and all vegetarian food was served.
Their border dispute notwithstanding, the Indians have held 18 rounds of talks with the Chinese to resolve the dispute peacefully

The visit was not merely a show of pageantry, since some significant agreements were signed by both sides. Most important was the decision that the General Electric Company would make engines for fighter jets in India. Furthermore, the US promised to make an investment of more than $800 million toward setting up a new $2.75 billion semiconductor assembly plant in India. The joint announcement listed a number of initiatives but made no mention of any measures to improve the state of human rights or support for pluralism and multiculturalism in India.

Modi’s right wing Bhartiya Janata Party, or the BJP, has been supported, financially and politically, by the influential Indian community that is highly educated, exceedingly wealthy and politically very sophisticated. Ironically, while this community has taken full advantage of the inclusive and secular policies of this country, they support a party that aspire to deny the same rights to minorities, especially Muslims, in India. It would be unfair, however, to lump all American Hindus as supporter of the Hindutva movement as many oppose the communal, ant-minority policies of BJP.

What objectives do the Biden administration hope to achieve from Modi’s visit? India has now surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. The US would like India, an emerging great power, to side with the West against Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. Modi, however, has refused to even condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The respected Indian journalist, Barkha Dutt, in a recent Op Ed in the Washington Post entitled “Sorry, America, India Will Never be Your Ally,” argued that American expectations are most unlikely to be fulfilled. India’s import of cheap Russian oil continues to break records. “Anyone who wants to see Indian leaders stand up and publicly assail the Kremlin--one of their main suppliers of weaponry and a valuable source of raw materials--is in for a long wait.” Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India, defying the Western embargo, has moved from buying no Russian oil to buying two million barrels a day, about 50% of its imports, according to the International Energy Agency. India is now refining the crude Russian oil on a large scale and exporting it to other countries.

Also, India will not align against China and replace it as a viable alternative. Their border dispute notwithstanding, the Indians have held 18 rounds of talks with the Chinese to resolve the dispute peacefully, and India remains a partner in the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

How can these developments be viewed in the context of Pakistan? It is evident that the gap between India and Pakistan has now grown so large and wide that it is naïve to believe that it can be bridged anytime soon. While India prospered, Pakistan for years has been mired in political and economic crises and riven by religious extremism. Pakistan once was respected and admired around the world. Soon after independence, its friendship was coveted by both the Soviet Union and the United States. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, was invited for an official visit by both superpowers. He chose to visit the US in May 1950; the visit lasted for 23 days. Even more remarkable was the state visit in 1961 of President Ayub Khan. He was given a spectacular welcome to Washington by President and Mrs. Kennedy. The State dinner in his honour was set at Mount Vernon, the historic residence of the first president of the republic, George Washington. It was a spectacular extravaganza that has never been replicated. Thus, the esteem in which a country’s rulers are held by others ultimately is a direct reflection of the power and prestige of their country.