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Modi’s speech draws mixed lawmaker response amid rights concerns

U.S. weighs close ties against country's human rights record

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Kevin McCarthy look on Thursday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Kevin McCarthy look on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday, in his second speech to a joint meeting of Congress, appeared to be only modestly well-received by lawmakers amid criticism raised by Democrats and human rights activists about anti-democratic developments taking place in the world’s largest democracy.

In a speech well-spiced with lines aimed at eliciting strong applause from different congressional groups, including those concerned with climate change, women’s political and economic opportunities, terrorism, and business development in individual U.S. states, Modi seemed to generate enthusiasm only when he spoke of the strength of the Indian-American diaspora, growing bilateral defense cooperation, Ukraine, maintaining a free Indo-Pacific, and the future of the U.S.-India relationship.

The loudest cheers as well as piercing wolf whistles came from the galleries, filled with some of the U.S.’s roughly 4 million Indian Americans. Guests in the galleries chanted ‘Modi! Modi! Modi’ as well as in Hindi, ‘Victory to the motherland’ at the end of the roughly one-hour speech.

Several Democrats boycotted the speech, and human rights activists protested outside the Capitol complex. To fill the empty seats, a line of Senate pages were seen being led into the House chamber before the speech began.

Modi is one of the few foreign leaders in recent times to be invited more than once to address a joint meeting of Congress, but lawmakers’ reactions, particularly to his insistence that nothing is wrong with the state of democracy in India, hinted at the balance the U.S. is trying to strike by nurturing a close relationship with a country and a leader with a record of crackdowns on political opposition, the media, civil society and religious minorities.

“Democracy is one of our sacred and shared values. It has evolved over a long time and taken various forms and systems,” the two-term Indian prime minister said, extolling India’s history of pluralism over 75 years of democracy since achieving independence from the British Empire. “Democracy is the idea that welcomes debate and discourse.”

Modi was silent about the role of the press in democracies. Press freedoms have been curtailed during Modi’s nearly 10-year leadership. In 2023, India fell 11 places from its 2022 ranking on the World Press Freedom’s Index, landing at 161 out of 180 surveyed countries.

At a White House press conference earlier Thursday, Modi denied the basis of a question from a Wall Street Journal reporter about what steps his government might take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities and to uphold free speech.

“I’m actually really surprised that people say so. And so people don’t say it,”  Modi responded, adding “There is absolutely no space for discrimination.”

The red carpet that Congress and the White House are rolling out for Modi this week, including a state dinner on Thursday, amounts to a U.S. strategic bet that India will be an ally in a potential regional crisis with China if the U.S. downplays concerns about the democratic backsliding and rights suppression, supports deeper bilateral cooperation on advanced technologies and weapons, gives New Delhi a pass on its dramatically increased purchases of Russian oil and its refusal to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We are home to all faiths in the world, and we celebrate all of them. In India, diversity is a natural way of life,” Modi said, a line that received little applause from lawmakers.

In 2022, India surpassed its former colonial occupier, the United Kingdom, to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. It is now projected to vault over Japan and become the world’s third-largest economy by 2030.

“When I first visited the U.S. as prime minister, India was the 10th-largest economy in the world. Tenth,” Modi said to stronger applause. “Today, India is the fifth-largest economy … and India will be the third-largest economy soon.”

Boycott

Several liberal House Democrats announced they would boycott Modi’s speech over his human rights record. They included the chamber’s only two female Muslims: Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota as well as Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Jamaal Bowman of New York, Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

And more than 70 Democratic lawmakers, including 18 senators, urged Biden in a letter Tuesday to bring up human rights concerns in his meetings with Modi. The letter highlighted concerns with press freedom and crackdowns on civil society as well as the targeting of religious minorities as documented by the State Department’s most recent annual reports on nations’ human rights practices and respect for religious freedom.

A joint statement from House Foreign Affairs ranking member Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y. and Indo-Pacific Subcommittee ranking member Ami Bera, D-Calif., had carefully modulated criticism for New Delhi, noting: “This visit will serve to strengthen our shared commitment to a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific and support for a rules-based international order, which is most effective when we demonstrate respect for a rules-based order at home.

“Whether it’s how we treat those who disagree with us, the most vulnerable amongst us, or our minority populations, we know much of the world looks to India and the United States for inspiration,” Meeks and Bera said. “It is the power of our examples that sends the strongest message.”

Other resolutions and statements released by lawmakers welcoming Modi’s visit made no mention of concerns about democratic backsliding.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Indo-Pacific Subcommittee Chairwoman Young Kim, R-Calif., in their joint statement said they looked forward to more bilateral “defense and space cooperation, technology sharing, and people-to-people ties.”

And the five-page resolution celebrating U.S.-India relations introduced on Wednesday by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, the co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, also contained no criticism or expressions of concern about the anti-democratic developments taking place in the South Asian country.

Some experts warn the Biden administration’s bet will backfire if the Hindu nationalist policies pushed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party spark widespread violence and unrest. Modi’s government would be consumed by domestic affairs with little bandwidth left to become a reliable ally Washington seeks in a potential confrontation with China.

And other analysts of the U.S.-India relationship say New Delhi is unlikely to abandon its longtime geopolitical stance of nonalignment when it comes to great power competitions.

In a Foreign Affairs essay last month, Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Washington’s expectations are “misplaced,” given India’s significant security weaknesses vis-a-vis China, with which it shares a long, partially contested border. Given that, New Delhi is unlikely to ever join a U.S.-led confrontation against China unless India’s own security is directly threatened, he said.

“The fundamental problem is that the United States and India have divergent ambitions for their security partnership. As it has done with allies across the globe, Washington has sought to strengthen India’s standing within the liberal international order and, when necessary, solicit its contributions toward coalition defense,” Tellis wrote. “Yet New Delhi sees things differently. It does not harbor any innate allegiance toward preserving the liberal international order and retains an enduring aversion toward participating in mutual defense.”

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