President Biden has declared “the battle between democracy and autocracy” to be the defining struggle of his time. But when he rolls out the red carpet on the South Lawn of the White House for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on Thursday morning, Mr. Biden will effectively call a temporary truce.
In granting Mr. Modi a coveted state visit, complete with a star-studded gala dinner, Mr. Biden will shower attention on a leader presiding over democratic backsliding in the world’s most populous nation. Mr. Modi’s government has cracked down on dissent and hounded opponents in a way that has raised fears of an authoritarian turn not seen since India’s slip into dictatorship in the 1970s.
Yet Mr. Biden has concluded, much as his predecessors did, that he needs India despite concerns over human rights just as he believes he needs Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and other countries that are either outright autocracies or do not fit into the category of ideal democracies. At a time of confrontation with Russia and an uneasy standoff with China, Mr. Biden is being forced to accept the flaws of America’s friends.
Two and a half years into his administration, the democracy-versus-autocracy framework has, therefore, become something of a geopolitical straitjacket for Mr. Biden, one that allows for little of the subtleties his foreign policy actually envisions yet that virtually guarantees criticism every time he shakes hands with a counterpart who does not pass the George Washington test. Even some of his top advisers privately view the construct as too black-and-white in a world of grays.
“Any time a president dresses up his foreign policy in the language of values, any concession to geopolitical reality inevitably elicits cries of hypocrisy,” said Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “The reality, of course, is that every U.S. president — including the ones most devoted to democracy and human rights — realized that there were some relationships that were just too strategically important to hold hostage to concerns about democratic values.”
The dynamic, which has played out repeatedly, has become a wearying topic for some top administration officials. The democracy slogan, they said, never fully captured a more textured strategy that goes well beyond dividing the world into two simple and opposing camps. It was more about recognizing the growing global drift away from freedom and the threats posed by more aggressive powers like Russia and China.
“From our perspective, it has never been as simple as drawing up jerseys,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said in an interview with several reporters on Tuesday. “It has always been about seeing those long-term trends and trying to point those trends in the right direction and then being prepared to have a more sophisticated approach to how we build relationships with a range of different countries.”
The White House sees the Modi visit as a critical moment to cement a relationship with one of the leading “swing states,” as officials have come to describe powers that have not definitively taken sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine. And U.S. officials see India as one of the bulwarks against an advancing China.
“We expect this will be a historic visit,” Mr. Sullivan said, predicting “a significant number of announcements” of agreements on military sales, technology, supply chains, semiconductors and energy, among others. “This really, from my perspective, will be one of the defining partnerships of our age.”
Mr. Sullivan insisted that Mr. Biden was not betraying his commitment to democracy by hosting Mr. Modi so lavishly and said the president would raise democracy and human rights concerns, albeit diplomatically. Mr. Biden, Mr. Sullivan said, will “try to indicate where we stand without coming across as somehow talking down to or lecturing another country that has a proud history of sovereignty.”
The president will do so, evidently, without the traditional joint news conference that he holds with many visiting leaders. While no official schedule has been released, Indian officials have resisted their American counterparts’ efforts to seek such a session, since Mr. Modi does not hold news conferences even on his own soil and has no interest in subjecting himself to questions from American journalists.
Mr. Modi will arrive at the White House on Wednesday evening for a private dinner with Mr. Biden, who will just be returning from a three-day swing through California. The president then will formally welcome Mr. Modi on Thursday morning with a pomp-filled arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. After meetings during the day, the two will reconvene at a state dinner in the evening, only the third that Mr. Biden has held during his presidency after events for the leaders of France and South Korea, two strong democracies.
Mr. Modi arrives as India has just surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation and feels it is coming into its own on the global stage. Now the planet’s fifth-largest economy, India has a young work force, a strong technology industry, a growing consumer market and barely-scratched potential as a manufacturing hub.
India’s trade with the United States has reached about $190 billion a year, and Atul Keshap, a former American envoy to New Delhi now serving as the president of the U.S.-India Business Council, has forecast that it soon could be worth $500 billion. Only Canada, Mexico, the European Union and China are in that league.
While many of the strategic goals of the United States and India have been reached, Mr. Keshap said in an online discussion, something still “needs to give a boost to these commercial and business ties, because that’s the real muscle and sinew of a relationship.”
That something might be China, as American companies and political leaders eye India as a country fit to shoulder some of the immense weight that China carries in the world’s economy. With 6 percent growth or better expected this year, and with much of the rest of the world economy hindered by the Ukraine war and inflation, India is making itself felt to both buyers and sellers everywhere.
“The U.S. needs India as much as India needs the U.S.,” said Happymon Jacob, who teaches Indian foreign policy at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The power play in the wake of the Ukraine war and India’s stance drove home the point in D.C. and other world capitals that New Delhi can’t be pushed around and that it must be engaged. For the U.S., India has become an indispensable power.”
That has, to some extent, obscured the retrenchment of Indian democracy under Mr. Modi over the last nine years. Some democracy watchdogs have downgraded India’s ratings, using phrases like “electoral autocracy” and “flawed democracy.” India tops the global list of countries that use internet shutdowns to quell unrest. Opposition leaders are frequently raided by investigating agencies and bogged down in court cases. Rahul Gandhi, a prominent opposition leader, has been thrown out of Parliament and is fighting to avoid a prison sentence after being accused of defaming the Modi name.
Some experts have argued that alarm over India’s democracy is exaggerated, maintaining that despite the erosion of civil liberties and the backslide in protection of minorities, there has been a deepening of democratic norms in other areas, with more people, especially women, participating in elections.
But Mr. Modi’s subtle consolidation of power is entrenching a Hindu supremacy on India’s constitutionally secular democracy and creating impunity for right-wing vigilante supporters attacking mosques and churches, harassing interfaith couples and even lynching men accused of transporting beef. The state is seen as increasingly partisan in how it doles out justice.
None of which the prime minister is interested in discussing with Mr. Biden, viewing the issues as internal matters that are none of Washington’s business. Just as Mr. Biden has abandoned his vow to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and instead is courting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he plans to highlight points of common interest with Mr. Modi over the next couple of days rather than areas of disagreement.
India is “sending a message to the U.S. that it needs to choose between preaching to India or engaging India,” Mr. Jacob said. “I think the U.S. has realized that it would be sacrificing the geopolitical utility of the Indo-U.S. relationship if it decides to castigate India.”
Alex Travelli and Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting.