President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today, who is visiting to boost Indo-U.S. ties on defense, trade and technology, and to reach out to American Indians. Late spring and summer have become PM Modi’s preferred season to embark on foreign travel, to hobnob with world leaders and members of the Indian diaspora. This kind of bridge-building is both acceptable and prudent for the leaders of an emerging nation like India with large diasporas.
It is concerning, however, to see news articles plastered with over-the-top reports of Modi and his interactions with world leaders that seem entirely devoid of substantive content. A “Prime Minister Modi is the boss!” from Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during an event in May with the Indian diaspora in Sydney, or pomp-filled optics with President Biden hardly make up for a lack of in depth analyses one would expect of exchanges between serious statespersons. Modi, ever the masterful populist, has perfected the art of getting the kind of vacuously gloating coverage that befits tabloid pieces on the British royalty more than the democratically elected head of an important country.
This kind of lopsided reporting works like a charm when it comes to wooing India’s increasingly uneducated, unemployed and impoverished masses, who vicariously bask in Modi’s perceived grandeur and greatness, and easily forgive his disastrous impact on extreme poverty, health and hunger in India. The many newly wealthy Modi supporters, mostly middle-class Hindus, have always seen India’s poor as a welcome source of abundant cheap labor. Modi’s anti-poor policies, combined with his Hindu nationalism, are a double bonanza for them, cementing Modi’s popularity as much as India’s top rank on the global slavery index.
Biden’s high profile hosting of Modi’s visit is controversial because of the latter’s genocidal past and autocratic present that has consistently decimated independent India’s historic democratic foundations. There has been vocal criticism from advocacy groups, think tanks, and policy makers alike, who have attempted to remind Biden of his own words at the Summit for Democracy as recently as March 2023: “Democracy demands full and equal participation of all of our citizens. That’s how we unleash human potential and put ourselves in the strongest possible position to take on shared challenges. And when democracies stand together, we reinforce and amplify each other’s efforts to great effect. We’ve seen it over and over again – democracies stepping up to lead and to solve problems together, not just for our own people but for the world. ” How does Biden reconcile these words with pallying up to Modi, even as he is actively dismantling the world’s largest democracy?
Biden seems desperate to woo India away from Russia as he attempts to fight Putin’s authoritarian control over Eastern Europe. Indian dependence on Russia for defense technology is well-known, and defense deals with Modi would give the U.S. more leverage over India.
Improved trade and technology partnerships with India would help counterbalance the growing dominance of China, whose strident authoritarianism threatens the Western liberal world order.
And finally, on his home turf, Biden needs to win over the 4 million citizens of Indian origin who he does not wish to lose to the increasingly authoritarian Republican party. So, in response to what looks the classic Trolley Dilemma (a switch master has to choose to let a runaway trolley hurtle over one person tied to the tracks to save 5 people on another track), Biden will sacrifice India to authoritarianism in an attempt to curb its spread in Russia, China, and the US. So much for the United States’ much professed regard and admiration for the world’s oldest, most vibrant democracy!
As an Indian, this calculus feels not only dangerously skewed but also deeply disrespectful towards an impoverished country whose leaders showed the world that democracy was not just the privilege of the rich. India achieved its present ability to provide the West with skilled professionals by first fighting against regressive elements like the RSS (the proto-fascist Hindu rightwing organization that Modi has belonged to since he was eight years old), by implementing unpopular austerity measures in its early years to prevent runaway inequalities, allowing an allocation of its limited resources to found institutions of higher education that the world is reaping the living dividends of today.
Biden, by refusing to openly criticize Modi on his human rights record, is – whether wittingly or not – hoodwinking a nation that is being held hostage by Modi, and betraying millions of innocent people, who, as a hangover from India’s late colonial history, still regard the approval of the West as a guarantee for decency, propriety and wholesomeness. They don’t have the benefit of understanding the dynamics of WWII to arm them against fascist intrusions into their communities. Heck! Even rich America was helpless against Trump’s dishonest machinations.
How can a U.S. political party whose political alignment suggests that it has learned its lessons from history, knowingly nudge a struggling giant like India into the authoritarian abyss? The democratic party of the United States has no excuse not to recognize what is happening in India today, and by averting its eyes, it is sacrificing some of the finest achievements of humanity – democracy and human rights – at the altar of greed and political expediency.
My sentiments, of course, stand in stark contrast to the crowds that throng Modi’s diaspora events, feverishly chanting his name, while he repeats stale platitudes, recounts the accomplishments of his Government with wildly varying degrees of accuracy, denigrates his political opponents, and puffs his audience up with a strong manufactured dose of nationalistic pride. It feels good, especially in fraught times as ours, to blindly believe in a slick, convenient, carefully curated version of reality rather than ask difficult, inconvenient questions to find the truth. Given that Modi does not allow press conferences, asking inconvenient questions is already pre-empted. It may be time serious leaders around the world start asking themselves if that in itself is not a ground for disqualification from their valued peerage.
The case against authoritarianism is not that it does not work. It works very well, in fact, for the few against the many. For vested interests against the common good. For the haves against the haves not. Starting as a chain of easy compromises, it does away with the pain of a steadfast stand for what is right. Authoritarianism appeals to the gut, appears orderly and efficient, and is easy to sell to the masses. It paints black and white pictures of us, the good, the virtuous, the victims, against them, the bad, the wicked, the tormentors. It absolves societies of personal responsibilities by leveling blame on the easily otherable. It offers the masses easily digestible solutions to difficult problems, based on tenuous correlations between superficial effects. But it never works in the long run, because it discounts, disparages, and ultimately misses the root causes hidden below the surface. Authoritarianism favors the ecology of the fungus, not the rainforest.
To truly fight for democracy, it may be worth remembering John Stuart Mill, who exhorted that democracy did not mean the tyranny of the majority. Democracy means a voice at the table for the smallest minority. It might serve world leaders well to heed Margaret Mead’s advice, never to doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world, because it is, in fact, it is the only thing that ever has. Democracy just makes the herculean task of changing the world for the better a bit easier by protecting the space for new ideas against mankind’s conceit. These are not exclusively western concepts. The ancient Indian epic Mahabharata depicts an existential battle between two sets of cousins – the hundred Kaurava brothers and the five Pandavas. The deceitful, covetous and opportunistic Kauravas amassed the a powerful army that vastly outnumbered their cousins’, but the Pandavas ultimately won, because they had Krishna, symbolizing the truth, on their side.
It is possible to stop a runaway trolley by having the strength, courage, and resourcefulness to block its path with something like a tree trunk, rather than resigning oneself to two different outcomes of human carnage. It would be wise for the western world to earnestly consult with committed defenders of democracy and human rights around the world before throwing the 1.4 billion people of India under the bus.