As the global tide of populism challenges the very idea of liberal democracy, Donald Trump’s visit to India highlighted how Trump and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi – leaders of the world’s two largest democracies – are a central part of the problem, pursuing dangerous, nationalist visions that corrode the tenets of democracy. While the United States and India should exemplify the virtues of democracy and respect for universal rights, Trump and Modi are undermining those values.
In the last 20 years the US-India partnership has blossomed, and its potential continues to grow. Trump’s trip was intended to highlight this potential with defense equipment sales, talk of a future trade deal and big crowds at a rally.
Despite the show, the real story is how Trump and Modi’s divisive policies are undermining the three pillars of the US-India strategic partnership: shared values; a robust economic relationship; and an interest in building a peaceful Asia-Pacific in which China is a player, but not a hegemon.
The United States and India were founded on the principles of democracy, pluralism and tolerance. While both countries have experienced significant challenges in living up to those values, the United States and India are proof that multicultural democracies can thrive.
And yet, Trump and Modi don’t act like they share those values. Trump’s racist policies and rhetoric attack non-white people while giving license to extreme white supremacist groups. Trump implemented a travel ban targeted at Muslim countries, ripped away children of migrants from their parents, defended white supremacists who attacked a crowd at a rally in Charlottesville, regularly demonizes immigrants and told members of the US Congress (all of whom are Americans) to “go back” to their countries just because they are not white.
Despite Modi’s long history of association with Hindu nationalism, when he took office there was a hope that he would pursue a more moderate path. But since being elected to a second term in 2019, Modi has brazenly embraced an agenda that discriminates against Muslims and minorities. His government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act that makes it easier only for non-Muslim immigrants from neighboring countries to obtain citizenship – the first law in India’s history to treat religion as a criterion for citizenship, and which more than 100 retired senior civil servants called “morally indefensible”. Last August, Modi terminated Kashmir’s longstanding semi-autonomous status, implemented the longest communications blackout in the history of any democracy, and detained political leaders there for months without charges.
Modi’s anti-Muslim actions have even emboldened people to engage in violence against religious minorities, a disturbing trend that was on display during Trump’s visit. As Trump and Modi preached about shared values like democracy and tolerance to a crowd in Ahmedabad, deadly violence erupted between Hindus and Muslims in Delhi.
Despite the embrace between Trump and Modi, the erosion of democratic norms has already undermined the relationship. India’s minister of external affairs, Dr S Jaishankar, refused to meet with members of the US Congress because one of the participants in that meeting was Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who is critical of India’s crackdown in Kashmir.
The assaults on democratic values in each country also threaten the second pillar of the US-India partnership – economic prosperity. While the trade relationship between the two countries has long been strained, both sides see significant potential in the coming decades, as India’s economy is poised to become the world’s third largest.
But, according to Milan Vaishnav, Modi is pursuing his nationalist agenda even at the expense of economic growth, a reality noted by the Eurasia Group, which listed Modi’s nationalist program as one of its top 10 economic risks of 2020. In America, Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies could hurt the economy, and it is clear that he has chosen a message of racism to energize supporters despite the impact it can have on the wellbeing of the American people.
If ethno-nationalism continues to grow in both countries, one could very well ask the question: what values is a US-India strategic partnership defending?
The third main rationale for a strong US-India partnership is the need to counter China. Across the political spectrum in both countries there is wariness of China and a sense that a closer US-India relationship can be a bulwark against China.
But if ethno-nationalism continues to grow in both countries, one could very well ask the question: what values is a US-India strategic partnership defending? If the United States and India are countering China in no small part because China threatens democratic values, then that rationale is considerably weakened if the United States and India are attacking their own democratic norms. The two countries can most effectively balance against China by making the case for what makes them distinct – their democratic systems.
Unfortunately, Trump’s friendship with Modi is merely another example of how Trump has cozied up to the growing list of nationalist leaders of democracies. From Brazil to Turkey, Israel to Hungary, Trump has made common cause with leaders who are undermining democracy in their own countries.
To be clear, the actions of Trump and Modi are far from the sum total of the relationship – people-to-people ties are strong, and economic and security cooperation continue to deepen. The countries need one another to tackle climate change. And democracy in each country remains strong, despite the challenges.
But, as President Barack Obama noted when visiting India for Republic Day in 2015, “… in big and diverse societies like ours, progress ultimately depends on something more basic, and that is how we see each other.” If the two countries cannot live up to their democratic ideals, the US-India partnership would lose its most powerful asset.
The strongest, most enduring partnerships are those based on shared values, and the US-India partnership should settle for nothing less.