At a meeting in Toyko last week, Joe Biden reportedly had high words of private praise for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two leaders met with their Japanese and Australian counterparts, Kishida Fumio and Anthony Albanese, for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit. Dating back to 2007, the Quad summits have been elevated by Biden as a major foreign policy instrument for the United States to forge an alliance system to counterbalance the rising power of China in Asia.
Part of the Tokyo meeting was behind closed doors. The Times of India quoted an Indian official who said that Biden “contrasted India’s success with China’s failure to handle the pandemic, though both countries are of comparable size. He said Modi’s success has shown the world that democracies can deliver, and busted the myth that autocracies like China and Russia can handle the rapidly changing world better because their leadership can take and implement decisions without going through lengthy democratic processes.”
The Times of India is a paper of high repute and very well-sourced with government contacts. Biden’s reported comments are in line with his administration’s pursuit of closer ties with India—and also its concern about the fate of democracy in a world where autocratic governments have become emboldened. In the official statement he made in Tokyo, Biden said, “Our cooperation is built on the values that we share: a commitment to representative democracy, the rule of law, and the right to live in peace.” This implicitly includes India in the pro-democratic community. So there is every reason to believe the unnamed Indian official was giving an account that was fundamentally accurate.
Biden’s reported praise of Modi has been much noted in the Indian media but ignored in the United States. If accurate, his comments are troubling and highlight the fundamental contradictions in the policy of pursuing strategic competition with China.
Simply as a factual matter, Biden’s comments do violence to reality. It’s true that China is currently struggling with its zero-Covid policy, which has been overmatched by the emergence of variants that spread more quickly than can be stopped by quarantines. But India has no claim to superiority.
A recent report by the World Health Organization from early May concluded the Indian government had been systematically understating Covid deaths. The WHO used an alternative method to calculate excess deaths that revealed a catastrophic loss of life.
As the BBC reports,
India has officially recorded more than half a million deaths due to the novel coronavirus until now. It reported 481,000 Covid deaths between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021, but the WHO’s estimates put the figure at nearly 10 times as many.
They suggest India accounts for almost a third of Covid deaths globally. So India is among the 20 countries—representing approximately 50% of the global population—that account for over 80% of the estimated global excess mortality for this period. Almost half of the deaths that until now had not been counted globally were in India.
The massive cover-up of Covid deaths goes hand in hand with the decline of Indian democracy under Modi’s government. Modi is a bloodstained figure, notorious for overseeing an anti-Muslim massacre in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister of the province. Since then, as the main face of Hindu nationalism as well as prime minister, Modi has led a frontal attack on democratic and secular norms in India, making the country increasingly unsafe for religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
In a May 23 article, Politico noted, “Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism and his country’s backsliding on human rights and democracy are creating a problematic alliance for President Joe Biden.” Politico went on to observe that
not only have Biden administration officials kept their public criticisms of Modi to a minimum, they’ve even engaged in outreach to Modi allies known for their extreme views. Earlier this month, the top U.S. diplomat in New Delhi met with the leader of an Indian organization notorious for its often-violent promotion of Hindu nationalism. The U.S. envoy, Atul Keshap, was reported to say afterward that he’d had a “good discussion” with Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a movement with paramilitary elements that intimidate Muslims and other non-Hindus.
To be clear, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is in fact the spearhead of religious authoritarianism in India.
In a speech in Washington on May 24, made during Biden’s Asia trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the United States’ relationship with China saying, “We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War. To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.”
As I noted in a previous column, Blinken’s words point towards not a cold war proper but a kind of professional wrestling pantomime of superpower conflict, a kayfabe cold war.
But even pantomimes, when performed by global superpowers, have consequences. One of the worst aspects of the historical Cold War was that in the name of fighting communism, the United States allied itself with all manner of corrupt and murderous regimes, ranging from apartheid South Africa to Pinochet’s Chile, who were seen as “bulwarks against Communism.”
The same logic seems to be returning in the kayfabe cold war. China’s human rights record is unquestionably squalid. The Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hong Kongers deserves forthright condemnation. The danger, however, is that in the name of containing China, the United States will now start turning a blind eye to human rights offenses in India, notably in Kashmir. In the name of democracy, the Biden administration is allying itself with the leader who is strangling the world’s largest democracy.