Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | South Asia

Modi’s ‘New India’ and the US-India Relationship: Turbulence Ahead?

Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, and the BJP appear to be all-in on implementing several controversial domestic measures. Should that matter for the U.S.-India relationship?

Ankit Panda
Modi’s ‘New India’ and the US-India Relationship: Turbulence Ahead?
Credit: Flickr via MEAIndia

Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s naya bharat (New India) — with its post-2019 general election focus on social issues, in particular — likely to cause a change in the U.S.-India relationship? University of Chicago scholar Paul Staniland has written a thoughtful essay over at War on the Rocks that examines this and other questions.

Staniland’s essay represents an important effort to think through the implications of how internal changes in India’s security policy and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s controversial domestic efforts are likely to feed back into New Delhi’s relations with the United States. As of late-2019, Staniland notes, there are “disagreements about the precise level of alignment that the United States and India should, or will, achieve” within the community of U.S. India-watchers.

“The ‘New India’ of Modi, [Amit] Shah, and [Subrahmanyam] Jaishankar is unabashed in its embrace of power politics and contemptuous of its critics,” he continues, citing the Indian home minister and external affairs minister alongside the prime minister as the three formative figures in the post-2019 government in New Delhi, which was built off the back of a tremendous democratic mandate for the BJP in elections to the Lok Sabha earlier this year.

Needless to say, the Trump administration — even in months when the president is not staring down impeachment — has been distracted with other issues internationally, leaving strategic thinking about India on the backburner. Since January 2017, the U.S.-India relationship, during its best moments, has mostly glided along the trajectory that had already been running its course through the Obama years, after an initial jolt during the Bush administration.

In 2019, India’s economic performance and the BJP’s expenditure of domestic political capital on longstanding issues on the Party’s social agenda have been negatively correlated: gone are the days of India as the world’s most promising large emerging economy, giving way to the days of India as the next big story in the global surge of populist illiberalism.

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From the August 5 announcement of a centrally guided effort to rearchitect the erstwhile Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories to the more recent controversy stemming from the combined threat posed to Muslims residing in India from the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), the naya bharat project appears more concerned with India’s demographics than economics. (A recent Supreme Court judgment on a decades-long controversy concerning a plot of land where the demolished Babri Masjid once stood, though originating with the judiciary, was also warmly welcomed by India’s ruling Hindu nationalists.)

The Trump years have presented bumps in the road for India, but largely, New Delhi has escaped many of the greatest pitfalls of a transactionally minded and capricious U.S. leadership. India’s trade deficit with the United States has brought it under the administration’s scrutinizing gaze — with real costs, like the suspension of GSP developing nation status for New Delhi — but the relationship has survived. Meanwhile, the previously mentioned controversies concern India’s relationship to its only Muslim-majority region, Kashmir, and, more broadly, its 200-million-strong Muslim minority.

With the Trump administration’s own animus toward Muslims — internationally and within the United States — the BJP’s ambitious social reformers, like Amit Shah, may have gambled that the current occupant of the White House is unlikely to give New Delhi too much grief over measures that might be perceived in the United States as concerning and illiberal. That’s largely been the case; the “America First” administration has other concerns as far as India is concerned.

But internal developments in India this year have not escaped the scrutiny of American lawmakers. Even as the executive branch wields overwhelming influence on matters of foreign affairs and defense in the United States, the legislative branch can provide important guidance. With the India-U.S. relationship, movement in Congress might serve as a bellwether for where the relationship may go after Trump — particularly if a Democratic administration arrives in the White House on January 20, 2021. A recently introduced bipartisan resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives — albeit skewed heavily to the Democratic side of the aisle among its sponsors — has raised eyebrows in New Delhi.

As Staniland rightly notes, perhaps the most fundamental question for American policymakers in the coming years will be to what extent concerns about growing illiberalism and human rights in India should weigh on U.S. policy. To date, Washington — and several other Western capitals — have been content to bet on India, recognizing the country as an undeniable force of nature in Asian geopolitics, owing largely to its demographic and economic promise. Beyond these hard indicators of future national power, what India represented in Asia — particularly in contrast with its large neighbor to its north — also mattered.

Faced with an ever-more-assertive authoritarian China, India, a “like-minded” democracy, long seemed to be a natural partner. The “like-minded” nature of India and the United States has been a fundamental part of the myth-making at the core of the relationship over the last 20 years. It made it easy, for instance, for the American strategic community to stomach the “strategic altruism” that made betting on India — even with an uncertain return on investment — a no-brainer for some time. More recently, though, longstanding proponents of American strategic altruism toward New Delhi, such as Ashley Tellis and Robert Blackwill, have made the case for a recalibration of expectations on both sides of the relationship.

Perhaps the U.S.-India relationship will weather India’s current bout of domestic turmoil successfully. After all, as Washington goes all-in on “great power competition” with Russia and China, India’s strategic value as a counterweight is only likely to rise. And even if Modi’s naya bharat project results in a permanent transformation of India into an illiberal husk of its former self, as long as New Delhi plays ball on a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and broadly serves American interests, policymakers here may be happy to continue to turn the other cheek on human rights and other issues.

India’s agency, too, will matter as it always has: New Delhi is hardly interested in entertaining American concerns about issues that it considers to be fully “internal,” even as we’ve settled into a state of affairs where daily headlines in international newspapers draw attention to the social consequences of the BJP’s domestic priorities — from nationwide student protests to what may be the world’s longest internet shutdown in any democracy. After two decades of rapprochement — and a supposed triumph over the “hesitations of history” that kept New Delhi and Washington at an arm’s length distance from each other throughout most of the second half of the 20th century — a more powerful and self-assured India should be able to stomach American concerns about issues it considers to be strictly “internal” in nature.

As the 2020s approach, however, the U.S.-India relationship appears to be closing a 20-year chapter of inexorable and unquestioning strategic rapprochement. In the new decade, American analysts will need to think hard on a range of questions pertaining to the relationship with India. India is too big to not matter to the United States and the basic American “bet” — that a more powerful India is inherently an advantage for the United States in Asia — is unlikely to change. What does lie ahead is a broadening of the conversation in Washington on what a changing India means for American foreign policy and strategy in Asia.