Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with US President Joe Biden at the White House during the PM’s recent US visit | Photo courtesy: @narendramodi | Twitter
Answers to this critical question are available not in Western media or think tanks but in panel discussions taking place on Russian and Chinese TV. One could take their analysis with dollops of salt, but it provides a historical perspective on why the US government wooed countries like China in the 1960s and India in the 21st century. On both counts, the Russian analyst claims it was meant to extricate China away from the Soviet Union and India from its successor state, Russia. While this explanation makes ample sense during the Ukraine war, the fact is that preference for India has been visible even before the civil nuclear deal was signed between President George W Bush-led US and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led India.
For many Washington watchers, what was really intriguing was why US President Joe Biden organised a state visit of Prime Minister Modi in the run-up to the G20 and Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) summits scheduled later this year. To facilitate the state visit to the US in June, the Indian government decided not just to shift the SCO summit by a month, but instead of organising the first physical event after Covid, it is going to host a virtual event - much to the chagrin of Russia, China, Pakistan and other Central Asian countries. Iran, which will be joining the SCO in this edition, needless to say, was also disappointed by this manifest scaling down of the summit.
With the major niggle of the Shanghai Cooperation summit out of the way, the PM embarked on this journey to Washington DC, which was not just meant to sign a few defence and technology-related deals, but also raise his global profile as a rare national leader who had addressed the US Congress twice.
What queered the pitch was the trenchant reaction from Congressmen and liberals asking hard questions from US President Biden about the PM's visit to Washington. In an open letter, 75 Congressmen wanted to know why the Indian PM had been invited when he had been accused of muzzling the media and smothering democracy. The letter also wanted the President to raise these issues with Modi. And what did the US government do? They showered the PM with deals that would not have gone to a country that was not a strategic ally. These include the agreement on the manufacturing of GE engines, the purchase of Reaper Predator drones and last but not least, the announcement that Micron will invest in a semiconductor plant in Gujarat. These deals partially involved the transfer of technology also. It was a triumphant moment for the PM, who could return home showing off all the agreements he had signed. Before he could conclude it as a visit where he pressed all the right buttons, uncharacteristically, the PM was pushed to address a White House press conference. It seems that the Indian handlers of the visit tried to convince the White House not to hold a press conference as the PM was uncomfortable with it, but they did not listen.
The White House reporter of the Wall Street Journal, Sabrina Siddique, asked a question to the PM about the discrimination and human rights violation of minorities. This was a question the PM would have tried to avoid, but he was left with no choice as it seems that this was the way the Biden administration wanted to respond to the demand of 75 Congressmen wanting to question the Indian leader. Though the PM replied using a teleprompter, the answer left no one satisfied. Worse, around the same time, former President Barack Obama, too, highlighted the imperative of inclusiveness lest India breaks up. The conspiracy theorists in the ruling party saw the hand of George Soros in the choice of a Muslim reporter raising the question. Understandably, there was a fierce attack on the WSJ reporter and President Barack Obama. Two ministers, who dared not open their mouths till the very top had cleared them, attacked President Obama for daring to ask questions on the state of minorities in India when his administration had bombed six Islamic countries.
White House condemned the harassment of the WSJ reporter, but the Indian government refused to respond to the excessive trolling of the journalist. Besides the issue of a young reporter questioning the handling of human rights issues by the Modi government, sceptics have begun to ask questions on the price and vintage of the Reaper drone for which the Indian government will pay an exorbitant price of $3.1 billion for some 31 drones. Critics in India are drawing a parallel with the Rafale aircraft deal for which allegedly a higher price was paid. By the look of it, the dust on the Reaper and GE engine technology transfer arrangement is yet to settle down. And if there are any exposes, then it could become an election issue in the 2024 general polls.
Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.