Prime Minister Modi and Vice President Harris in Washington United States Vice President Kamala Harris and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India speak to members of the media before their meeting in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office in Washington on 23 September, 2021. [Photo: Yuri Gripas/Pool via CNP Photo via Newscom/Alamy]

India-US close relations survived the recent visit of Narendra Modi to Washington despite considerable concern in the Biden administration and the Democratic Party about the way his government is reducing the scope of India’s democratic freedoms. Vice President Kamala Harris was outspoken at a public meeting, while President Joe Biden adopted a more gentle approach. Modi rebutted their views when he addressed the UN General Assembly on 26 September.

Also significant for the visit was the AUKUS security alliance between the US, UK and Australia announced on September 17 that points to a reassessment by the Biden administration of India’s potential military usefulness in the Indo-Pacific. This is a welcome development for India, which is traditionally reluctant to become tied to security alliances, especially when it is trying to find balance in its complex relationship with an increasingly aggressive China.

Such concern has led to questions about India’s effectiveness in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad with the US, Japan, and Australia, which has been developing as a counter-force against China’s expansionism in the past four years.

Now, with AUKUS’s high technology defence agenda against China, initially involving the long-term development of nuclear submarines for Australia, the Quad can focus on broader less strategic military issues, as it did when the leaders of the four countries met in Washington on 24 September. That fits with India’s agenda.

Modi, whose 71st birthday was widely celebrated by his Bharatiya Janata Party across India just before he went to the US, has been accustomed to being enthusiastically greeted in Washington since he came to power in 2014.

To begin with, he met a surprisingly receptive Barack Obama, and then there was his rumbustious soul mate Donald Trump. Modi and Trump would hug each other, and even staged what amounted to joint political rallies in each other’s countries in 2019 (Houston with Indian Americans) and 2020 (Ahmedabad) with the Indian prime minister seemingly endorsing Trump for re-election.

There is now a basic antipathy in Washington for Modi’s brand of nationalism, which is focussed on building a Hindu homeland where Muslims do not have equal ranking, and where freedoms of speech and expression are harshly curbed. Obama said in Delhi during an October 2017 visit that Muslims should feel integrated, something that “should be cherished and nurtured”, but that was to a private audience at the end of his trip after leaving Modi.

Given that background, Modi’s first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden on September 24 went well. There was no hug, but the two men grasped each other’s arms and produced all the usual platitudes about shared interests. The president even mentioned family ties with 4m Indian Americans in the US and his relatives with the Biden name who have been found in India.

However, after saying that the meeting marked “a new chapter in the history of US-India ties”, he stressed the need for “democratic values” and added that the messages of “non-violence and tolerance matters more than ever before”.

Kamala Harris (who has an Indian mother) was more outspoken during a public part of her meeting with Modi. This echoed her earlier criticisms of the government’s policies on issues such as Kashmir.

Turning to look straight at Modi, she said: “As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries and around the world and that we maintain what we must do to strengthen democracies at home.”

Directly challenging Modi’s approach, she said “I know from personal experience, and from my family, of the commitment of the Indian people to democracy and to freedom, and to the work that may be done and can be done to imagine and then actually achieve our vision for democratic principles and institutions”.

Modi failed to attend a subsequent Quad meeting held by Harris, which went ahead with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia. This led to suggestions by analysts that Modi may have stayed away because he resented what Harris had said in public, but the counter-view was that he did not need to be there because he had already had his own meeting with the vice president, which officials later said had been constructive.

His formal response was robust when he spoke at what looked (on television) like a rather sparsely attended meeting of the UN General Assembly. Sidestepping Harris’s points, he cited his own rise from helping his father run a tea stall to becoming prime minister as an example of Indian democracy . India, he said, was the “mother of all democracies” and its diversity was “a symbol of our strong democracy, where dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects are examples of a vibrant democracy”.

The Quad was first set up in 2007 without much impact, but it has been gradually revived since 2017 and is now seen as a key bulwark against China with the task of “maintaining stability in the Indo Pacific”.

Six months ago, the four leaders came together for the first time in a virtual meeting – earlier contacts had mostly been between officials – and the Washington meeting was the first they had face to face. They discussed issues such as trade, the Covid pandemic, climate change, and stability in the Indo-Pacific, plus the need for Afghanistan to develop without becoming a hub for terror and condemnation of Pakistan’s role in supporting terror groups.

Responding to China’s aggression, they agreed to “recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. But their future work will be on non-military areas ranging from vaccines and infrastructure to semiconductor supply, cyber security and satellite data – all areas targeted by China.

Prime Minister Modi’s opening remarks at QUAD Leaders’ Summit in Washington – September 2021

The AUKUS deal has underlined Australia’s superior status compared with India because, though the US sells high technology defence equipment to India and has an agreement on developing nuclear power plants, it has resisted behind-the-scenes requests for nuclear submarine technology.

“An American offer of nuclear propulsion technology, such as the one made to Australia, would be welcomed in New Delhi,” says Ajai Shukla, a former army officer and leading defence analyst. “However that would carry the quid pro quo of alliance burdens, a price that India, unlike Australia is unwilling to pay.”

That goes to the nub of India’s conundrum. While it welcomes growing links with the US, including large defence orders, it resists being drawn too far into a western net, partly because it is trying to redefine relations with China after major Himalayan border confrontations last year that have yet o be fully resolved. It also wants to continue placing major defence orders with Russia, which the US has tried, and failed, to stop.

India is much more comfortable in the Quad, as modified by AUKUS, and the Biden administration probably respects that. The Harris-Modi clash over democracy and freedoms will however be less easily accommodated since Modi will not be softening his Hindu nationalism and all it entails.

[You can read the original version of this article on John Elliott’s Riding the elephant website.]