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India’s Eroding Democracy Threatens Its Foreign Policy Interests

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India’s Eroding Democracy Threatens Its Foreign Policy Interests

The 2008 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal shows India’s democratic values can lead to significant gains for the country. Modi must keep that in mind.

India’s Eroding Democracy Threatens Its Foreign Policy Interests

President George W. Bush with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 2006

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Embassy New Delhi

India’s eroding democracy has been receiving steady international attention. Global indices, such as Freedom House and V-Dem, have even questioned whether India can still be called a democracy. This slide directly threatens the country’s foreign policy interests, including its relationship with the United States.

The government’s recent arrest of a 22-year-old climate activist on trumped up sedition charges comes on the heels of its high-handed approach to agrarian reforms and a long list of other authoritarian actions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies have, among other things, suppressed access to the internet and cellphone service; pressured Twitter and Facebook to silence dissenters; jailed intellectuals, activists, and even comedians; brutally assaulted peaceful protestors; and lashed out at international personalities, including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Supporters of the Modi government justify these actions as necessary to maintain order and claim that they do not dilute India’s immense strategic importance to the United States. This is partially true: no matter what the Modi government does domestically, India will remain a significant balancing power in Asia. But the world – and the U.S. – can no longer overlook Modi’s authoritarianism.

In fact, declining democratic quality erodes India’s soft power and threatens to derail its foreign policy ambitions, including its long-sought permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a trade deal with the United States. This is not simply an academic assertion. We examine Congressional deliberations on the pivotal 2008 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and conclude that India’s status as a vibrant, inclusive democracy was instrumental in getting the deal passed by a skeptical Congress. Should it lose this hard-earned status, India will find it more difficult to gain supporters in the U.S.

What Did Democracy Have to Do With the Nuclear Deal?

The India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, approved by the U.S. Congress in October 2008, was the result of almost six years of intense negotiations. The agreement, the most significant diplomatic achievement in bilateral relations in 60 years, lifted a three-decade moratorium on nuclear trade with India and expanded U.S.-India cooperation in civil nuclear energy and nuclear technology. The deal heralded a new era of wide-ranging cooperation between the two countries.

At the time of its conception and all the way to its signing, the pact was controversial in both countries. Many in India were concerned that the agreement threatened the country’s cherished strategic autonomy. Critics in the United States, on the other hand, said that the deal reversed five decades of U.S. nonproliferation efforts and could contribute to a nuclear arms race in Asia. These concerns made their way to Congress, and the administration of President George W. Bush had to work hard to dispel these concerns. The key argument put forward by Bush’s team was the singular appeal of India as a thriving democracy.

In her 2006 testimony before the Senate, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dedicated her opening paragraphs to the values shared between India and the U.S., describing Indian society as open, free, transparent, stable, and marked by individual freedom and rule of law. She noted India’s multiethnic and multireligious democracy and stated that the two countries were natural partners because of these attributes. Other supporters, such as Ashley Tellis, then a senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for political affairs, argued that, because India was a democracy, its strength “brings only benefits for Asian stability and American security.” A 2006 Senate Report mentioned the word “democracy” 43 times, and noted that India’s democratic institutions make it a role model for the world. In other words, India’s democratic status was key to overcoming the concerns that many expressed about the deal itself.

India and the U.S.: Shared Experiences

The nuclear deal set the stage for a whole host of economic, diplomatic, and military exchanges and initiatives between the countries, which continue to pay dividends to this day. To be clear, India’s regime type was not the only driver of the nuclear deal, and it is not the only reason for continuing bilateral cooperation. The country’s significant economic potential and its geostrategic value were, and are, important pillars of the India-U.S. relationship. Yet, it is remarkable that, in its outreach to the U.S. Congress, the Bush administration took such pains to emphasize India’s democratic attributes. This is because India’s unique and bold experiment in democracy has long been an exemplar for the world.

Moreover, the journeys of the U.S. and India, as large democracies grappling with deep societal inequities and divisions, have had several important intersections. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, was educated at Columbia University, where he noted the similarities between anti-Black racism in the U.S. and caste oppression in India. Many attributes of the Indian Constitution — itself a visionary document that enshrined democracy, fraternity, equality, and justice as the founding principles of the state — were informed by the American experience. In turn, India’s nonviolent struggle for independence from British rule helped shape the U.S. civil rights movement. These intersections are not simply historical vestiges or public relations symbols — they actively shape how American leaders view India.

The late John Lewis, for example, was keenly interested in the similarities between Dalit and Black experiences and supported scholarly exchanges between the two countries. He would surely be distressed at the Indian government’s crackdown on academic freedom and intellectual deliberations. As far back as 2000, President Bill Clinton, in his speech to the Indian parliament,  called democracy and diversity the first two “basic lessons” that India has taught the world. President Barack Obama remarked on the shared history and attributes of the two countries, and the Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized the two countries’ shared values.

The Costs of a Blemished Reputation

Today, India’s reputation as a democracy is in tatters. Modi’s government is acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner at home and bristling at criticism from abroad. This has not gone unnoticed among international audiences, including in the U.S. Congress. In September 2020, a bipartisan group of 14 senators wrote to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking that India be designated a Country of Particular Concern due to its attacks on religious freedoms. In 2019, after Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced a House Resolution criticizing the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, visiting Indian external affairs minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, demanded that she be excluded from a Congressional delegation set to meet him. This demand was rejected, and Jaishankar then cancelled the meeting — surely a lost opportunity for India to present its case to members of Congress.

The United States has also seen mobilization against the Modi government’s actions by sections of the Indian American diaspora. In early 2020, the city of Seattle, which hosts a large Indian-origin population, passed a resolution condemning the Indian government’s policies. While such a local resolution has no diplomatic standing, Council members reiterated that the resolution would be sent to Washington state’s Congressional delegation, in order to influence their discussions about India. Similar resolutions have since passed in six other U.S. cities, and progressive diaspora groups have been calling on Congress to take note of India’s deteriorating democracy. Members of Congress are sensitive to the concerns of their constituents — and will almost certainly take note of these calls when the subject of India comes up.

These developments can change the arc of U.S.-India relations. While the United States still wants a strong strategic relationship with India, it can no longer take India’s democracy as a given. Today, it is clear the very idea of India, crafted with extraordinary vision by independent India’s founders, faces existential threat from its own leaders. This means that India will no longer find the receptive audience in the U.S. that it enjoyed in 2008, when its status as a democracy was beyond question.

In fact, if the U.S.-India nuclear deal were to be proposed today, it almost certainly would not pass Congress. Without India’s status as a democracy to lean on, the controversial nature of the deal would be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. In 2006, Secretary Rice used India’s status as a democracy to justify the deal, while holding the line on other countries of nuclear concern such as Iran or North Korea. Today, substantive questions about the deal’s potential damage to global nonproliferation efforts could not be explained away by referring to India’s strong commitment to rule of law and democratic principles. In 2008, the deal passed by large bipartisan margins in both houses of Congress. More than an endorsement of the particulars of the deal itself, those votes were votes for India, because of the appeal of India’s values.

The Indian government points to its regular, robust elections to insist that it continues to be an inclusive democracy. But, as economist Amartya Sen has noted, democracy is about enabling public discussion. This, indeed, is what makes a democracy — not simply winning elections, which Modi’s party is adept at — but sustaining and nurturing a culture of discussion, debate, and dissent.  The Indian state should rethink its authoritarian turn and listen to its citizens, rather than silencing them. The country’s attempt to craft itself into an inclusive, vibrant democracy is the fountainhead of the global respect that India so ardently seeks. Standing by those ideals served India well in the past — and it will continue to protect and strengthen its foreign policy interests.

Guest Author

Bidisha Biswas

Bidisha Biswas is a professor of political science at Western Washington University. She previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Portugal.

Guest Author

Anish Goel

Anish Goel is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at New America. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia. He is currently an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed here are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.