India was absolutely devastated by Covid-19. Officials say the demand for treatment overwhelmed a health care system that already lacked medical supplies and infrastructure, and India’s economy experienced the biggest decline of all the major economies. The World Health Organization reports that over 4.7 million people in India died because of Covid.
India is a very important strategic partner for the United States, and we need to nurture this relationship and strengthen our ties even more. The bilateral relationship between the world’s largest democracies is a huge economic opportunity for America as India’s domestic market continues to develop. Although, even before the pandemic, India was facing an economic slowdown and severe inflation, India’s economy is the 7th largest in the world.
India is also central to our Indo-Pacific security strategy. The fact that China has grown increasingly assertive and moved aggressively to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean has closely aligned the security interests of the U.S. and India. This has led to stronger bilateral defense cooperation between our two countries.
At a two-plus-two dialogue on September 6, 2018, India and the U.S. signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which allows India access to advanced U.S. communication technology as well as real-time communication between our militaries. At the following two-plus-two dialogue, the countries signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which authorizes the sharing of sensitive geospatial data to help increase the accuracy of Indian drones and cruise missiles. This alliance gives the United States a way to navigate and balance China’s rise while providing India a way to further protect itself against Pakistan, its main rival, and better solidify its border position with China.
This last one is increasingly important for India’s security. In June 2020, tensions at the India-China border reached its highest level in over forty years. For weeks, President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India had been sending troops to Galwan Valley, an area high in the Himalayas that was the site of a war between the two countries in 1962.
That war ended in an uneasy truce whereby an ill-defined 2,100-mile-long Line of Actual Control was established. This was meant to ease hostilities but plenty of bad blood remains — which is a problem when both countries in the dispute have nuclear weapons. Now, both sides are aggressively building infrastructure to further stake their claims, which is only inflaming tensions more.
The United States’ alliance with India is, on balance, positive, but there are three issues that demand immediate attention, plus one emerging (unacceptable) dynamic within India that we need to watch carefully.
The first issue is trade. U.S. goods and services trade with India totaled an estimated $146.1 billion in 2019. The United States is now India’s largest trading partner and India is now our 9th largest goods trading partner and 12th largest goods export market.
On June 5, 2019, Donald Trump removed India from the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a preferential trade status that India had enjoyed with the United States since the 1970s. The GSP is a program that allows certain products from qualifying developing countries to enter America duty free. Abruptly ending this agreement doesn’t really sound like something a friend would do. Unsurprisingly, India retaliated with tariffs on 28 American products. Read more here.
The second issue is immigration. During the Trump administration, fewer and fewer citizens of India were granted student visas and H-1B visas, which is detrimental to the long-term economic interests of the United States and, we're sure, taken as a snub in India. Read more here.
The third issue is Kashmir, a territory that both India and Pakistan claim and have already fought two wars over. Although both countries claim to have full rights over Kashmir, the area is internationally recognized as “Indian-administered Kashmir” and “Pakistan-administered Kashmir.” On August 5, 2019, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, a provision that granted autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Technically, it takes approval by the Jammu and Kashmir constituent assembly for Article 370 to be revoked — which is impossible because the assembly was dissolved in 1956.
The United States’ response to this dangerous and volatile situation was embarrassing. Essentially, Donald Trump clumsily forced his way into the conflict between Delhi and Islamabad at a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan in July 2019.
After the meeting, Donald falsely claimed that Prime Minister Modi had specifically requested his involvement, which led to India’s Ministry of External Affairs releasing a Tweet — the only way Donald Trump would probably see it — that said, “We have seen @POTUS’s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India & Pakistan, on Kashmir issue. No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to U.S. President.”
The tweet continued, “It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism. The Shimla Agreement & the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India & Pakistan bilaterally.” This seems like India’s way of saying butt out!
That said, it is in America’s best interest to encourage a resolution on Kashmir between India and Pakistan, as well as make certain that the Muslim minority in both Kashmir and India is protected.
…which leads to the emerging (unacceptable) dynamic within India that we must watch carefully. In May 2019, Modi, who was the incumbent prime minister, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a historic victory which solidified the Hindu nationalists’ place in the power structure of the country.
Today, Modi’s approval rating among his people is 78 percent, by far the highest approval rating of any major leader in the entire world. The fact that India has more than doubled its share of the global economy over the past three decades probably has something to do with the goodwill. India now accounts for 7.2 percent of global GDP.
Modi’s popularity — or what many would call “cult of personality” — makes what is happening in India even more concerning. Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) ranked India 108th among 179 countries in its 2023 report on global democracy, referring to India as an “electoral autocracy” instead of a democracy.
This is unsurprising given that Modi’s tenure is becoming more and more authoritarian by the day. For one, he is severely cracking down on journalism and news organizations. In its 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked India 161st among 180 countries, an 11-point drop from just one year before: “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom in India is in crisis.”
Most frightening, the calls for Muslim genocide are getting louder and more brazen. Although Modi’s treatment of the Muslim minority was comparatively innocuous during his first term, his second term is shaping up quite differently for the Muslim population. This is of particular concern in Kashmir.
After Modi’s Hindu nationalist government revoked Article 370, seven million people were immediately put in limbo and tensions escalated quickly in an area that was already under severe distress. In addition to revoking Article 370, Modi sent in more troops to implement curfews, roadblocks and other restrictions; shut down Internet and cellular communications; threw out all visitors, including journalists; and arrested local politicians and pro-freedom activists. Almost immediately, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Khan compared Modi to Hitler.
Meanwhile, within India’s borders, Muslims have experienced uneven justice by the police and the courts, been killed for alleged slights against Hinduism, and lost contested religious sites to Hindus, like the one at Ayodhya. Modi has also implemented a citizenship test that makes it easier for Hindus, but not Muslims, to become citizens and has pushed for a register of citizens, which would require those in India to provide evidence of their citizenship — even though he knows full well that many Muslims can’t produce the necessary paperwork. This is made far worse by the fact that, at the same time, Modi’s government ordered detainment camps be built for those in “violation” of the proposed order.
These actions are fraught with human rights violations. And there’s an additional consequence: As the Muslim minority feels more threatened and alienated, Islamist terrorist groups could use their vulnerability and fear to gain a stronger foothold in India. Under no circumstance can we allow that to happen.