Today is a big day for U.S.-India relations. After meeting President Joe Biden this morning, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address a joint session of Congress and attend a state dinner in his honor.
The visit coincides with some big announcements: India’s joining of the Artemis space exploration accord, its approval of a Micron semiconductor assembly plant, and the signing of a deal that would see GE jet engines for fighter aircraft manufactured in India.
But these announcements and the grand optics of Modi’s visit belie the growing skepticism toward India in U.S. and other Western policy circles, with more voices questioning whether India will ever emerge as a U.S. ally.
The debate on what a rising India means for the West and the future of the world order has renewed in the lead-up to Modi’s visit. It’s been triggered by developments in the past year, including New Delhi’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its emergence as the world’s most populous country, and the decline of democracy and human rights in India.
This discussion, taking place in outlets like Foreign Affairs and the Financial Times, involves people who’ve played a role in shaping the discourse on U.S.-India relations for two decades or more. What makes this round of debate interesting is we’re seeing some changes in the views of those who were once full-throated advocates of a U.S.-India partnership.
Questioning ‘Strategic Altruism’
For the past two decades, U.S. policy toward India has been guided by a policy of “strategic altruism.” Coined by Ashley Tellis, a former Bush administration official, the idea is this: the U.S. should help India rise as a superpower without expecting much in return because a strong India is invariably in our national interest.
The elephant in the room, of course, is China. And beginning with the 2005 U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, successive U.S. administrations have given India concession after concession to position it as a counterweight to China.
But India’s response to the Ukraine war has provided a wake-up call for many. India remains a top ally of Russia and has refused to condemn its Ukraine invasion. It’s also ramped up imports of Russian oil, filling Moscow’s war chest. Indian officials proudly pronounce they will pursue their naked self-interest as NATO allies face
Tellis has twice since updated his idea of strategic altruism, each time lowering expectations. Writing in Foreign Affairs this May, Tellis recognizes there is now an “unbridgeable gap” between the U.S. and India. He rightly acknowledges that New Delhi seeks to avoid the role of being a “junior partner” or “confederate” of a great power, even when it struggles against a superior adversary, like China.
Other voices have become more pointed in their criticism of India. Chief among them: Gideon Rachman and Ed Luce, both of the Financial Times.
“Because India is still seen as a democracy, and shares America’s fear of China, we in the West habitually misread the character of its worldview. When Indian diplomats — such as S Jaishankar, its powerful foreign minister — say India wants to see a multipolar world, that is exactly what they mean.”
This is precisely the point I made in March:
India is no ally of the West or the Global South. It is a selective partner only out for itself. It seeks a multipolar world order in which the power of the West is diminished. Paradoxically, the U.S. and its allies are aiding India in reducing their global influence.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Markey, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, similarly argued this month that while there is a strong basis for U.S.-India cooperation to counter China, Washington must “cease endorsing Modi’s BJP” and “stop altruistically subsidizing the rise of another illiberal Asian giant.”
China Rivalry, Economic Growth Sustain India Optimism
Champions of a strong U.S.-India partnership have also become louder recently. This is partly driven by an Indian government public relations drive. It’s hosted influential foreign policy voices, some of whom return home to downplay the threat of Hindutva — the Hindu nationalist ideology.
But it’s the intensifying China challenge and India’s role as the world’s fastest-growing large economy that drive optimism about the future of India and its relations with the United States.
In April, after visiting India, CNN host Fareed Zakaria said he “came away from the trip bullish about India.”
The push to diversify supply chains away from China is attracting interest from companies like Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk met Modi in New York this week. There’s a lot of money to be made in India, a big market. India’s regulatory environment is laden with mines, but corporations continue to look for a piece of the pie.
The Dark Road Ahead
Criticism of India is growing in the press and in the halls of Congress. In recent years, observers have spoken of an “India fatigue” in the Beltway. But does it matter when it comes to actual U.S. foreign policy? The Biden administration’s India policy, which is eerily similar to that of its predecessor in its disregard for human rights, indicates the pushback will have limited effect.
The Biden administration is desperate to counter China and will make concession after concession to woo India. In March, Kurt Campbell, a senior White House official, said that “India is not an ally of the United States and will never be an ally of the United States.” And then this month, he spoke of his hope that the Modi visit “consecrates” the relationship with India — the type of language one would use to describe an alliance, not a tactical alignment.
Officials in Washington are simply choosing to look away at India’s enabling of Russia and its persecution of religious minorities. The whitewashing of Yogi Adityanath — the extremist Hindu monk who could succeed Modi — as an economic reformer is straight out of the Modi playbook.
Once banned from the U.S., Modi is set to address a joint session of Congress for the second time. Adityanath, who founded a militant vigilante group and has ordered the homes of Muslim homes to be bulldozed, may want to start preparing for his address to Congress later this decade. The writing is on the wall.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.