Why Did Democrats Embrace the Far-Right Narendra Modi?

Liza Featherstone (Jacobin) 23 June 2023

During an official state visit, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has been feted and praised despite his Hindu nationalism and right-wing policies — even by Democrats.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who is on a state visit to the White House this week, is one of the most significant far-right leaders in the world. His persecution of religious minorities has troubled even the US State Department, which has taken note of the problem in its annual Religious Freedom Report. His administration has passed discriminatory laws against Muslims that have helped lead to a horrifying rise in violence against Muslims in India. Modi has also jailed journalists and activists and attempted to use the judicial system to suppress a BBC documentary critical of him. He was denied a US visa for years because of his role in a 2002 anti-Muslim riot in which more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were slaughtered.

If this sort of fascistic politics has a home in the United States, most people would assume it would be in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Yet Joe Biden and the Democrats are laying out the red carpet for Modi this week.

Modi doesn’t eat meat, so Jill Biden had a chef from California prepare millet and stuffed mushrooms for a Thursday state dinner of four hundred guests, including a saffron risotto and a strawberry shortcake infused with rose and cardamom, a menu the first lady described as “stunning.”

During their joint appearance Thursday, President Biden not only did not mention any of the human rights problems with Modi’s regime, he heaped explicitly misleading praise upon it.

“Equity under the law, freedom of expression, religious pluralism, diversity of our people — these core principles have endured and evolved,” said Biden, in direct opposition to the evidence about Modi’s record, “even as they have faced challenges through both our nations’ histories.”

The ass-kissing began before Modi even arrived. Biden told Modi last month, “I should take your autograph. You are causing me a real problem. Next month we have a dinner for you in Washington. Everyone in the whole country wants to come. We have run out of tickets.”

The administration’s Modi fandom is not new. Last summer, at a US embassy–sponsored event in India, US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo called the prime minister “unbelievable, visionary.” She gushed, “He is the most popular world leader for a reason. . . . His level of commitment to the people of India is just indescribable and deep and passionate and real and authentic.”

Why do the Democrats love Modi? After all, they hate Trump, a domestic right-wing leader whose politics are similar in many ways to the prime minister’s.

Partly, it’s geopolitical imperial strategy. Just as the United States was happy to back General Augusto Pinochet in Chile during the Cold War, today Biden seeks a partnership with Modi to counter China. The visit has included a rollout of the two major powers’ plans to cooperate on defense.

Democrats also love Modi’s commitment to neoliberal capitalism. Some big corporate partnerships between Indian and US companies have been announced this week, including one between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics. During the visit, some big arms sales and a massive push by US company Micron to build semiconductors in India have also been announced.

As well, Indian-Americans are an important voting bloc. More than 70 percent of Indian-Americans are believed to have voted for Biden in 2020, yet Modi also remains extremely popular here. This includes Indian-Americans who are more conservative in an Indian context: many US supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi’s far-right party, vote for and even donate to Democrats. Indian-Americans are seen as important voters in some swing states. In giving Modi this over-the-top welcome, the US president is keeping these Democratic Party supporters happy, too.

Of course, the president of the United States should talk with every powerful world leader, regardless of how unsavory. But a state visit expresses special diplomatic regard. This, combined with the pomp and praise, is revolting and insulting to everyone engaged in fighting the global far right.

Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez boycotted Modi’s address to Congress, pointing out that for the president to invite another world leader to give a joint address with him is “among the most prestigious invitations and honors the United States can extend” — a privilege that should not be extended to the leader of a country that the US Holocaust museum has warned is at high risk of mass killings.

The other democratic socialists in Congress — Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman — also boycotted the address, as did Rep. Ilhan Omar, who introduced a resolution condemning the Modi government’s human rights abuses. Indian human rights and leftist groups have been protesting Modi’s appearance. Liberal Democratic representative Ro Khanna, on the other hand, dismissed the socialists’ boycott, saying it comes across as “the West lecturing.”

The effect of all the official praise from the Democrats is to whitewash what’s happening in India. The same people who will tell you to vote blue no matter who because Trump is a fascist don’t seem too worried about fascism in a country like India. The disgraceful episode shows that centrists can’t be counted on to fight the far right; they’ll often strategically ally with the Right when they feel they need to counter communism or advance neoliberalism.

Among US elected officials, the only people condemning the Modi lovefest have been socialists and our close allies. It’s fallen to the Left, as it often has throughout recent history, to stand steadfast in the fight against fascism.


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