Trans-Pacific View | Opinion | South Asia

America’s India Problem

Predictions of the demise of Indian democracy by American media and activists are exaggerated and reflect a narrow understanding of India’s history and complexity.

America’s India Problem

A woman holds a Kashmir flag during a protest outside the United Nations against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sept. 27, 2019 in New York, U.S.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was received in the United States for a state visit that included a dinner at the White House and an address to a joint session of Congress. Few other world leaders have addressed Congress twice. There is no doubt that the U.S. government was trying to demonstrate its commitment to increasingly close relations with India.

From a political and strategic point of view, the trip was a success for both the U.S. and India, judging by the effusive praise the political leadership of both countries heaped upon each other and by the quality and quantity of deals signed. Particularly important is a deal to produce General Electric Aerospace jet engines in India, a sign of growing military ties between the two countries. Moreover, leading businessmen, such as Elon Musk have expressed excitement about investing more in India.

The reaction from the U.S. media, think tanks, and activist groups on the other hand, was more muted.

Leading U.S. think tanks, newspapers, and magazines such as the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Time, and Vox all ran articles last week that advised caution, questioned U.S. President Joe Biden’s warm reception of Modi, and at times even purported to be mortified at improved relations between the two countries, primarily because of human rights issues in India.

Modi’s visit thus engendered two very different types of reactions from elites in the United States. This could definitely be problematic for India going forward if not checked because think tanks, journalists, and activists all influence policymakers. Indeed, the perception is growing in American media and activist circles — without correction — that democracy has “decayed” in India, that India’s government is supported by “fascist forces,” and that the “genocide” of its Muslim minority is imminent.

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Predictions of the demise of Indian democracy are exaggerated, but the language used in the U.S. media casts an increasingly dark pall on India for Americans who do not know India well. There is no denying that India has a long history of inter-religious and inter-ethnic tensions that are sometimes inflamed by both private and governmental actors, but that is part and parcel of the experience of existing in a large, multiethnic country. Despite flareups of violence, and slow advancements in education and healthcare, the Indian state has managed to provide security, infrastructure, and impressive economic growth, putting a lie to the idea that it is a fragile state at risk of “pulling apart,” as former U.S. President Barack Obama asserted. Rather, as the Wall Street Journal wrote, “as a vigorous democracy, India has some hope… of reaching a settlement of its sectarian divisions over time… the U.S….is in danger of prioritizing a narrow view of human rights over broader strategic — and human-rights — concerns.”

This monomaniacal hyperfocus on a narrow set of concerns has a distorting effect on how many educated Americans see India and risks alienating many Indians, who are otherwise well-disposed to the United States. Political commentator and journalist Noah Smith argues that Americans are “really bad at understanding Indian politics,” and this is largely because Americans have “only recently started paying attention to India.” Those that do are typically influenced by a progressive set of Indians who tend to dislike Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

This is problematic because it might impact economic and geopolitical cooperation between India and the United States, as important as that is. Indeed, this is the wrong framing for the underlying issue, which is how important it is for the media, think tanks, and scholars in the U.S. to understand one of the world’s most important — and world’s most populous — countries in a holistic manner.

India would seem less likely to be falling into a dictatorship or an ethno-nationalist regime if for example, it was understood that the BJP, while holding power at the federal level, recently lost state elections in Karnataka to the opposition Congress Party. The BJP, often described as a Hindu-nationalist party that threatens minorities, is in power in several Christian-majority states in the Northeast, and counts among its vote bank several Muslim groups. At the same time, it has lost elections in Hindu-majority states as varied as Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu for a variety of reasons ranging from local politics to not meeting electoral promises for development to local ethnic nationalism. The Supreme Court of India has continued to expand rights and push back against illiberal laws. In the tumult of Indian politics, it is important to remember that the BJP itself has only been in power for nine years at the federal level, and this is largely due to Modi’s extraordinary popularity.

Beyond politics, there are hundreds of social, economic, and cultural trends and occurrences across India that are almost never discussed in the mainstream U.S. media. Indians are traveling like never before, experimenting with new forms of literature and movies, building high speed rail, and changing their marriage patterns, while companies like Apple are building factories in India. None of this is to deny the pervasive social discrimination present in India; rather, it is to demonstrate that Western coverage of India tends to be narrow.

To put this in context, it is instructive for Americans to compare India to a similar era in U.S. history: the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the United States was industrializing and beginning to assert itself as a major world power. This was the era of robber barons, but also of manufacturing growth that provided opportunities for millions. Political machines such as Tammany Hall influenced elections in cities like New York, but groups organized and won elections on the basis of labor, suffrage, temperance, and anti-immigration. Groups existed that promoted social changes, while others advocated a return to tradition and religion. New technologies, foods and fashions came to the fore. The United States increasingly became jingoistic, what today people would call nationalistic, seizing Cuba and the Philippines from Spain in 1898, despite significant domestic opposition. President Woodrow Wilson presided over a country that enforced the segregationist Jim Crow laws in the South while also promoting democracy abroad in Europe.

Could the complex social, cultural, and political changes in the United States at this time be reduced to only one or two themes? This is something for U.S. analysts to reflect on when considering contemporary India: a country that is in a state of change.

Furthermore, outcomes that American politicians, activists, and journalists may see as undemocratic may actually be a reflection of democratic outcomes in societies with different histories and values. The history of British colonialism and the Cold War, for example, are related to India’s extremely prickly attitude toward criticism from other countries that seems to degrade its sovereignty. This may explain the rather pronounced reaction several Indian cabinet ministers had toward Obama’s recent comments, which were construed as a threat to India.

Political scientist Fareed Zakaria points out that much of the world — including countries that hold free and fair elections like Brazil, India, and South Africa — reject the strain of thinking present in Western nations that foreign policy is a moral exercise and that democracy should lead to the same set of policies across countries. Different societies have varying conceptions of how to order themselves, and these questions will naturally lead to different answers on issues such as the proper balance between individual and group rights, the role of government, the influence of religious or moral values, and the extent of personal autonomy. The notion that all countries should converge on a set of universal outcomes is not widely accepted in many places. The charge that certain countries are authoritarian or nondemocratic may in fact reflect the belief, common in the U.S., that democracy should lead to certain social and political outcomes, when in fact, it does not. In many non-Western democratic countries, the values of their elected leaders, and the laws passed by their legislatures, reflect, in fact, the wishes of the society from which they emerged.

What, then, is to be done? For most Americans, India is a distant place, one that hitherto they did not know much about, despite the popularity of some cultural imports like yoga and prominence of some CEOs of Indian origin. As contemporary countries and societies, India and the United States have not interacted much, not in the way that the U.S. society has engaged its neighbors and allies in Europe, Israel, and East Asia. There ought to be more direct interaction between the two countries at the political and social levels. Members of the U.S. Congress and the Indian Parliament should lead delegations to each other’s countries more often. Ordinary Americans interested in India should engage more directly with the country, either through travel, Track II diplomacy, or simply through seeking out greater contact online with Indians from all walks of life.

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From the Indian side, it is important for Indian political and business leaders to engage more with American civil society and the media and clearly articulate their views and policies though articles, interviews, and participation in panels, instead of ceding the conversation to a relatively small group of journalists and activists. Indian leaders should moreover cultivate the art of engaging with inquisitive — and sometimes hostile — audiences, and avoid dismissive or acerbic responses to criticism. It goes without saying that incendiary rhetoric should be toned down. Finally, Indian leaders should encourage tourism to India and invest in specialized tours for journalists and the Indian diaspora.

It is not only important for India to sign deals with politicians and CEOs. India is already being successfully courted by the American establishment. What is important now is for India to make a long-term investment in courting American civil society, the media, lobbyists, and think tanks so as to earn the goodwill of ordinary Americans and ensure that they get a fuller picture of India.