India reacts sharply to U.S. criticism over democracy and rights

An attendee holds U.S. and India’s flags as they gather on the South Lawn of the White House to watch an official State Arrival ceremony as U.S. President Joe Biden hosts India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a State Visit at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 22, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

NEW DELHI – After the Indian government last week arrested opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal in a case of alleged corruption just weeks before a national election, U.S. and German officials issued public statements gently reminding India about the importance of the rule of law.

The response from New Delhi was anything but gentle. Instead, it reflected the tough new brand of diplomacy embraced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and cheered by his nationalist supporters.

The Indian Foreign Ministry immediately summoned German and U.S. diplomats for a dressing-down in New Delhi. It lashed out at Washington for “casting aspersions” and making “completely unacceptable” comments about India’s internal affairs after the State Department reiterated its concerns about Kejriwal’s arrest and the freezing of an opposition party’s campaign funds.

On Thursday, March 28, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar raised a complaint frequently heard among Modi’s supporters: that the United States is moralizing, overbearing and prone to meddling.

“There are people in the world who want to lecture us on our judicial behavior,” Dhankhar told the American Bar Association at a conference in New Delhi. Dhankhar went on to dismiss U.S. officials’ recent comments about a controversial new Indian citizenship law as “ignorant.”

“We are not a nation to get scriptures from others,” Dhankhar said. “We are a nation with a civilizational ethos of more than 5,000 years.”

The shift in tone is one facet of India’s changing face as it grows into global power under Modi. The Biden administration has assiduously wooed the Indian prime minister as a geopolitical partner and invested heavily in deepening technology cooperation with the world’s fifth-largest economy.

“This seems to be a trend the last few years with the foreign minister very vocally articulating a sense that India will also push back unlike in the past, when India would absorb some of these challenges,” said Harsh V. Pant, vice president of studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank that has ties with the Indian Foreign Ministry. “This is a more self-assured government that says, ‘Look, we’re doing well, we’re coming back to power, we’re very comfortable politically, and we represent a wide swath of opinion that wants us to reflect that confidence.’”

While analysts and diplomats say the spats are just that – verbal clashes that are unlikely to derail the fundamental trajectory of deepening bilateral relations – they reflect the many serious differences between the two countries on subjects ranging from India’s relationship with Russia to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s treatment of religious minorities.

This month, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, who often goes viral on Indian social media when he delivers one of his trademark ripostes to Western critics, pointedly defended India’s friendship with Russia and accused the West of “cherry-picking principles” on Ukraine.

Jaishankar and other officials have also hit back at the West for harboring Sikh terrorists following U.S. and Canadian allegations that the Indian government may have been involved in a campaign of targeted killings of Sikhs abroad.

C. Raja Mohan, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said U.S. and Indian leaders were in the midst of reelection campaigns. “The U.S. has to do its democracy-promotion bit, and India has to make its sovereignty argument for the home audience,” he said. “It’s theater.”




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