Through the second half of the 20th century, independent India and the US have underlined the shared values between the world’s largest democracy and the most powerful. But they had little else to showcase, as Delhi and Washington differed on most regional and international issues. That problem may now be turned on its head, and the unprecedented geopolitical convergence between Delhi and Washington on issues ranging from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific is being marred by a potential divergence. The visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted the commitment of Delhi and Washington to expand the scope and intensity of their strategic partnership while averting a potential split over the question of human rights.
The Biden administration has defined the conflict between democracy and autocracy as a major contradiction in contemporary world affairs. In its major statements since it took charge at the end of January, it consistently underlined the shared democratic values with India. Ahead of the visit, officials in Washington said Blinken will take up issues relating to democracy and human rights in conversations with Indian leaders. The Foreign Office in Delhi was quick to respond by saying how proud it was of India’s democratic traditions and that it will not shy away from any conversation. The US’s eagerness to raise issues of democracy and the testy Indian reaction are taking place against the background of growing American concerns about what is seen to be India’s democratic backsliding. The American apprehensions could also be seen as an amplification of anxieties within India over the rise of a majoritarian politics and the undermining of institutions. Of course, concerns about India’s “democratic deficit” are not new and were publicly expressed by President Barack Obama during his visit to India in January 2015. But the idea that India has become an illiberal democracy has gained much ground since then.
Secretary Blinken chose to tread a careful course in Delhi between the Western claims that Indian democracy is besieged and the proposition that the American geopolitical imperative should take precedence over shared political values. Blinken did not hesitate in acknowledging the problems of American democracy; he insisted that both US and Indian democracies were “works in progress”. In his address to a group of civil society leaders and at the joint press conference with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Blinken praised India’s democracy as the “largest expression of free political will” anywhere in the world. He emphasised the importance of Delhi and Washington in jointly countering the global “democratic recession”, by renewing their own democracies, and learning from each other’s experiences. While Blinken has found a way to make a point on democracy, Delhi should acknowledge that the problem is not merely a diplomatic one. It has to understand that only by doing what is right for India, and renewing its commitment to constitutional values at home, can it boost its geopolitical gains.