For decades, the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies, the United States and India, has been held together by two things: hope, and shared values. Hope that India’s rise will not be too long delayed, and that the U.S. will welcome it as an exemplary, responsible great power that helps maintain the global liberal order — because of the values both countries profess to share. This is supposed to be what ties the two together.
But Donald Trump’s visit to India has revealed those foundational assumptions are beginning to look outdated. The cricket stadium — the world’s largest — where he and Narendra Modi addressed a joint rally in Ahmedabad was plastered with photographs of the two of them, alongside text that read: “two strong nations, one great friendship.” Perhaps the reference was to Indo-U.S. ties; but, in fact, it reduced that complex bilateral relationship to the camera-ready camaraderie between the two leaders.
The joint statement that ended the visit revealed how that relationship is not living up to its potential. Most of it was taken up by a reiteration of shared security interests. These are, indeed, considerable. Yet military co-operation has simply not moved forward at the pace that either side would want. In some sectors, it has moved backward — for example, thanks to India’s insistence that it buy Russian air defense missiles that would make some interoperability with U.S. forces difficult if not impossible.
Meanwhile, a reduction in the friction over trade and investment still looks remote. The joint statement merely said that the leaders agreed “ongoing negotiations” would “promptly conclude.” Other than two populists’ shared love for headline-grabbing photographs, there isn’t much holding the Indo-U.S. relationship together at the moment.
And even those photographs, of Donald and Melania Trump holding hands with Modi, were not the images that defined the past few days in India. The presidential visit was overshadowed within India by a sudden upsurge of violence in New Delhi, the epicenter of peaceful protests against a sequence of anti-Muslim moves taken by Modi’s government after it won re-election last year. At least eleven people, including a policeman, were killed in clashes. Videos and pictures supposedly of police brutality have gone viral; in one, prone and injured anti-government protestors being manhandled by cops in riot gear are forced to sing the national anthem while sounds of beatings are heard. Another showed “a group of Hindu men beating a Muslim man with sticks, leaving him on the ground, curled up in a ball and covered in blood.”
This followed repeated incitements of violence against the protestors by local politicians from Modi’s party. One senior leader, while standing next to a top Delhi cop last week, warned him that unless the police “cleared the streets,” then party activists would. Some protestors also, undoubtedly, turned violent. But it is quite clearly the anti-Muslim mobs that are being enabled by state machinery. As Indian Twitter trended calls for an economic boycott of “jihadists,” reporters on the ground in Delhi told of mobs burning Muslim-owned businesses and homes as the police stood by and “offered no reaction.”
Delhi, the site of peaceful protests for months, saw a sudden upsurge of violence the moment the American president arrived. But that is certainly not because the U.S. is in any way relevant to this internal debate. The sad truth is that those protesting India’s drift toward authoritarianism and populism know nothing can be expected from Trump’s America. Not even moral support. The president himself, when asked at a press conference, showed what side he was on: “I will say that the Prime Minister was incredible and he told me that he wants people to have religious freedom. He told me that in India they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom.” This is an astounding statement from a U.S. president in a city wracked by state-supported riots targeting religious minorities.
Perhaps there are indeed shared values between Modi’s “new India” and Trump’s America — just not the sort that would produce a forward-looking alliance to underpin the global liberal order.