By Van Jackson

Abstract: Washington overlooks the rising Hindu-fascism of Narendra Modi's regime because it thinks the US-India defense relationship is a counterweight to Chinese power. But India does not need US support to balance China and will not temper its own foreign policy to fit US preferences. Worst of all, the trend of a global far right—of which Modi is a part--is the greater problem which US policy is actively abetting because of its distorted perception of the China threat.

There are some things everyone should know that aren’t getting attention about India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his recent visit to Washington: things that aren’t just about Modi’s politics or a “democracy v. autocracy” dichotomy.

I mean, yes, best-selling author and voice of conscience, Arundati Roy, has spoken against the Modi regime in India for some time and sees India under his leadership as slipping into Hindu fascism.

She’s not alone.

Salman Rushdie recently described India under Modi as a “very autocratic state which is unkind to minorities, which is fantastically oppressive of journalists, where people are very afraid.”

The rap sheet on Modi and the BJP (his party) is long. Human Rights Watch has multiple reports documenting the illiberal slide of Indian democracy. In 2022 it wrote: “Authorities throughout India arrested activists, journalists, and other critics of the government on politically motivated criminal charges, including of terrorism.”

The ongoing political nightmare in parts of India is much worse than even that conveys.

Why, then, did the Biden administration fete him at the White House with a state dinner?

Why did the US Congress give him the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress?

Why is the Pentagon selling his government MQ-9 armed Predator drones, co-producing jet engines with their defense-industrial base, and cooperating with his government on the same advanced technologies (AI, quantum computing) that the United States is trying to deny China?

And why did progressive members of Congress rightly insist that Biden broach religious and ethnic persecution in India during his meetings with Modi yet support the Pentagon’s defense relationship with this “Hindu-fascist,” “very autocratic state?”

The idea that geopolitics—or specifically US tensions with China—motivates our courtship of Modi and our willingness to sell him weapons confuses motivation with justification. The same problem animates our participation in the US-United Kingdom-Australia security pact AUKUS.

US policy toward India is not realpolitik; it’s what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism.” It makes the world more dangerous and harms US interests.

Let me explain.

Conflating Dark-Hearted Values With “Interests”

Modi is a well-known ethnonationalist whose politics firmly align him with one of the major security problems of our time—the rise of a global far right. Like the Orbans and the Bolsonaros and the Dutertes and yes, the Trumps, Modi enjoys fervent support among his base and comes to power with electoral legitimacy.

But Roy and Rushdie among many others are responding to the way he uses that power to implement a reactionary agenda that ignores economic and environmental problems in favor of wielding the state to create a world of terror for minorities and his political enemies. 

Our cooperation with Modi does not reflect a “values versus interests” problem.

We can put aside the fact that “interests” are often a way of expressing a particular set of dark-hearted values without owning up to them. There is no interests-based justification for continuing the 20-year American national security tradition of being a sycophant to Indian elites.

India fits into America’s strategic imagination in a way that many other right-wing demagogues do not. India’s got some trappings of democracy. It’s got nukes. It’s got English-speaking peoples. But most importantly, it’s big. It’s got continental size and it shares a massive border with China.

As I document in Pacific Power Paradox, US strategists going back to 2002 have seen India as a “strategic counterweight” to China. That’s why the Bush administration entered into a nuclear partnership with India in 2005 despite India’s absence in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. That controversy was a big deal at the time but swept under the public-accountability rug, like so much of our current dealings with India.

The problem with all this isn’t just the hypocrisy, although that stings too. Matt Duss had a searing critique of Biden throwing his human rights agenda in the trash with the way he’s fawned over not just Modi but autocrats the world over. In the name of great-power competition, America will befriend ABC—Anyone But China.

My concern goes much deeper than hypocrisy, however. Judged on its own terms, these Jean Kirkpatrick-inspired choices to romanticize India as a frontline bulwark of China rivalry are getting us nothing and costing us—and others half a world away—a great deal.

Making the World Worse and Getting Nothing for It

US policymakers have wrung their hands about China’s fait accompli in Hong Kong, after Chinese officials effectively re-colonized it in 2019. Yet that same year, India unilaterally revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status. It wasn’t just a fait accompli; it was also territorial revanchism—the kind that’s supposedly a threat to a rules-based international order. And India has occupied the place ever since.

What India’s done in Kashmir is analogous to China’s takeover and suppression in Hong Kong, except it’s more violent. But how many press statements did politicians give condemning China over Hong Kong and not India over Kashmir? This selectivity is of a pattern—we systematically keep our mouths shut about the BJP and Modi’s overt Hindu-fascism. Why?

Because Washington has a fantasy that India offers a perfect counter to China because it looks big on a map.

Yet India is famously non-aligned, including voting how it wants on Russia—against US preferences. And I don’t begrudge India for that. Strategic nonalignment is a source of global stability in our topsy-turvy world.

But it means the US-India relationship is not giving Washington what it thinks it is. India doesn’t need help balancing China; the Sino-Indian border dispute ensures that India will balance China regardless of US preferences. More importantly, extending our conflict with China to South Asia is bad for us, bad for Sino-US rivalry, and bad for South Asia. Globalizing geopolitical security problems does not remedy them; it proliferates them.

And the problem doesn’t stop at Kashmir. Modi’s designs for settler-colonial expansion there borrowed directly from Israel’s practices oppressing and occupying Palestine. Modi has also cultivated close ties to Bibi Netanyahu, who in turn has close ties to other key figures of the global far right—most famously Trump himself. These guys strengthen each other.

We’re also seeing in India the marriage of right-wing corporate interests with ethnonationalist, deeply reactionary political interests: a fascist coalition if ever there was one. India is the premier case study illustrating how “neoliberals need neofascists.” When the state uses its power to impoverish people or make it impossible for households to achieve economic security, it must feed the people a dark-hearted version of identity politics—the fash.

We can choose to turn a blind eye to religious and ethnic persecution in India, but it’s currently sowing the seeds for separatism and civil war in places like Punjab—a conflict that would be harder to ignore. We’ll wake up one day, the world will be worse, and we will curse the gods pleading, “Why god, why?!” We’ll have no recognition that we were the gods all along.

A More Realistic Diagnosis

Washington has misdiagnosed the problems facing the world as being rooted in a Chinese red menace when China is in fact a major success story within an economic order that privileges America foremost.

The problem—which is common across China, the United States, and India—is that we’re feeding our people ethnically-tinged nationalisms instead of bread, and in so doing enriching the few at the expense of the many.

Those imbalances don’t preserve themselves. They require systems of oppression to be sustained.

And so maybe Washington can’t bring itself to condemn Modi because it can’t look itself in the mirror…but that, then, raises the question: Why focus so heavily on evils perpetrated by China when many of the same evils can be found next door to it as well?

Washington is overlooking Modi’s Hindu-fascism, getting no geopolitical payoff out of it, and amplifying the gnarliest trend in international security. Call that what you will, but it isn’t realpolitik.

Article or Event Link
Jun 29, 2023
Public Policy


Public Policy

Join Our Newsletter and Get the Latest
Posts to Your Inbox

No spam ever. Read our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.