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Is the U.S. turning a blind eye on the backsliding of India's democratic values?


The White House rolled out the red carpet and welcomed India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a lavish state dinner. His visit comes as Modi faces criticism for human rights violations and religious intolerance, allegations that he denies. Here's Modi speaking through an interpreter at a press conference in a rare instance where he took questions from reporters.


PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Through interpreter) There's absolutely no space for discrimination.

ELLIOTT: President Biden calls the U.S. and India tie one of the defining relationships of the 21st century. But is the administration turning a blind eye when it comes to India's record? Sadanand Dhume joins me now. He's a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Good morning.

SADANAND DHUME: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: So for nearly a decade, Modi was not welcome in the U.S. because of his role in anti-Muslim riots in India. Now he's addressing Congress and being embraced by the White House. What's changed?

DHUME: Well, I mean, his addressing Congress and being embraced by the White House is not exactly new. He made a visit shortly after becoming prime minister in 2014. He came in 2015. What is new about this visit is the extent of the welcome - the state visit, the state dinner, the official White House ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, if you have it. And there I think what is new is also old, which is that both countries have deep concerns about the rise of China. And the U.S., and the Biden administration in particular, has decided to double down on its bet on India as a potential counterweight to an authoritarian China.

ELLIOTT: Now, human rights and democracy, fundamental to American foreign policy. Why is President Biden not pushing a little harder on these issues when it comes to India?

DHUME: I think there are a couple of reasons. I think the first and the most important is that when they look around the world and they look around Asia, they see that there really aren't too many countries - or, in fact, any country that has India's heft in terms of population. It's the most populous country in the world now. It has the world's second-largest military. It has the fifth-largest economy. It has a long, 2,000-mile contested boundary with China. So all of these things together make India a very attractive option as a partner. The second is that, though it's undoubtedly true that India has been backsliding in democratic terms, this is part of a broader backsliding in the world, right? Liberalism, or what we call liberal democracy, is in trouble across the planet. It's in trouble in many places, India is one of them.

ELLIOTT: How does India's trade relationship with Russia fit into the picture here?

DHUME: Well, it seems as though the Biden administration has really decided to give India a free pass on that question. India has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And India has, in fact, very dramatically upped its import of Russian oil since the invasion. And obviously, this is not something that makes the U.S. happy. But I think they're keeping their eye on the main prize in Asia, which is an India that is more closely aligned with the U.S. both in strategic terms and in economic terms. And they're willing to overlook the fact that India maintains a close relationship with Moscow.

ELLIOTT: And briefly - we just have a few seconds left. After all the pomp and circumstance, what will be key to what comes out of this new embrace of India?

DHUME: The key is implementing the very detailed and vast list of things that they've come to agree upon. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Sadanand Dhume is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. We appreciate your insight.

DHUME: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.