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Biden warmly welcomes India's Modi despite questions about human rights issues

President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug during an arrival ceremony at the White House on June 22.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug during an arrival ceremony at the White House on June 22.

Updated June 22, 2023 at 3:16 PM ET

President Biden is rolling out the red carpet for India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, welcoming him to Washington with an honor reserved for the closest allies of the United States — a state visit that includes a glitzy black-tie dinner.

It's a sign of the importance the White House places on its relationship with India, the world's most populous country, which it sees as an indispensable partner in countering the influence of China.

But it's also a sign of the delicate balance Biden is trying to maintain between his geopolitical strategy and his campaign promise that human rights would be a central focus in his foreign policy.

India prides itself on being the world's largest democracy. And while the country continues to have vibrant elections, experts worry that much of what makes a liberal democracy thrive is currently being undermined in India under Modi.

"The accusations of backsliding, religious bigotry, attacks on the press, attacks on civil society make this a particularly awkward moment in which to celebrate the two democratic countries coming together to contest China," said Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, who studies democracies and democratic institutions.

Earlier this year, Indian tax authorities raided local BBC offices after the network aired a documentary that was critical of Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat riots where over 1,000 people died, mostly Muslims. The Indian government has outright banned the documentary.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi answers a question during a press conference with President Biden.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi answers a question during a press conference with President Biden.

Democratic allies want Biden to speak out

More than 70 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter urging Biden to discuss human rights and democratic values during this week's visit.

Biden told reporters that he had a "good discussion" with Modi about democratic values, and said both countries "cherish freedom and celebrate the democratic values of universal human rights which face challenges around the world and in each of our countries, but which remain so vital to the success of each of our nations. Press freedom, religious freedom, tolerance, diversity."

Modi — who doesn't usually participate in press conferences — told a U.S. reporter that he was "actually really surprised" that human rights groups have raised issues of discrimination against religious minorities and crackdowns on free speech. He defended his government's track record on human rights.

"We have always proved that democracy can deliver and when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion or gender — there's absolutely no space for discrimination," Modi said.

The White House is concerned about issues of press freedom and religious liberty in India, and officials privately raise the matters with their Indian counterparts, a senior Biden administration official told NPR, speaking about sensitive diplomatic issues on the condition of anonymity.

"I think the key is, how we handle it," the official said. "Indian interlocutors feel very uncomfortable when they feel that they've been lectured or dealt with through very public displays."

Concerns about China are a big part of the U.S.-India relationship

Biden told reporters that the relationship between the United States and India is "among the most consequential in the world." There are common interests between the two countries on health care, climate change, education, and technology.

Biden and Modi announced a long list of deals on Thursday, demonstrating the breadth of the strategic relationship. This includes a plan to jointly produce GE's F414 jet engine in India, a new Micron semiconductor facility in India, cancer research, and a pilot for more quickly adjudicating work visa renewals.

But experts say the most important convergence between the two countries is national security. The White House views China as the single biggest foreign policy threat of the current era.

"The China factor is really an accelerant in the relationship," said Akriti (Vasudeva) Kalyankar from the Stimson Center's South Asia Program.

Biden and Modi did not mention China in their prepared remarks — but China is an "undeniable" factor in the bilateral relationship, said the senior administration official who spoke with NPR. "Our view is that this is an absolutely critical period to build a strong relationship with India ... and one of the reasons why is that it helps in our overall strategy in the Indo-Pacific," the official said.

And this view isn't limited to the White House. Republican and Democrats in Congress have similar concerns about China's impact in the region.

"[The] relationship with India is incredibly important in stabilizing the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region and enabling us to basically lower the possibility of conflict," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a ranking member on the House Select Committee on China.

India has its own concerns about China

Modi has his own concerns about China, given the historic rivalry and border conflicts between the two nations, said Ben Rhodes, who worked on national security issues in the Obama White House.

Because of that, Rhodes said he thinks the White House could be more outspoken about democratic backsliding and treatment of Muslim minorities in India without risking continued collaboration with India on the national security issues.

"I think that Modi is doing this for what he perceives as India's interests in having a bloc of countries that can counter China," Rhodes said.

Another point of contention has been Russia's war in Ukraine. India has refused to condemn the war, while Biden has led Western support for Ukraine.

Biden on Thursday said he talked with Modi about "our shared efforts to mitigate the humanitarian tragedies unleashed by Russia's brutal war in Ukraine." Modi said India's emphasis has been on "resolution of dispute through dialogue and diplomacy. We are completely ready to contribute in any way we can to restore peace."

"I think that the Biden administration has been willing to set aside their differences over Russia because they really are playing a long game with India. And they see China as the long-term threat," said Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, who spent years working on South Asia foreign policy in the U.S. government.

U.S. policymakers and foreign policy experts see this state visit as a critical moment to cement ties that are going to be vital for the next 50 years.

"India is going to have influence in this region. It's inevitable with its growing economy, its huge population," said Curtis. "And it's very important for the United States to remain closely engaged, even if there are bumps in the road."

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and first lady Jill Biden greet Noah Isirimah at an event about technology and education in on June 21, part of Modi's state visit.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and first lady Jill Biden greet Noah Isirimah at an event about technology and education in on June 21, part of Modi's state visit.

Corrected: June 22, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Modi did not address Russia's war in Ukraine in his prepared remarks. In fact, he briefly addressed the conflict.
Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.