India is a vital partner to the U.S., both globally and in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s why President Joe Biden has visited India twice since assuming office. It is clear where American interests lie, but it is equally clear that the journey to a stronger relationship is circuitous and at times challenging. Only by addressing the bumps in the road can the ride ever become smoother. Otherwise, this will not become the reliable alliance that Biden rightly seeks.
What irritants are front and center? Top of the list are internationally recognized questions around India’s decision to increase purchases of Russian oil, its recent human rights record — especially towards minority groups — and its poor investment climate, which has consistently short-changed U.S. individuals and firms.
For context, it is worth juxtaposing the relationship the U.S. shares with the other Quad partners, Australia and Japan. Those relationships are rooted in the rule of law and built on a shared commitment to constructing enduring pillars of freedom. This is why the U.S. connection with these nations is long-lasting and effective; the relationship with India will never be described in such terms for as long as the rule of law remains in question.
As the U.S. draws closer to India on regional security through the Quad and economically through the newly co-signed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), this noticeable decline in India’s rule of law and commitment to protecting human freedoms will become ever-more problematic.
Even as the U.S., and nearly the entire globe, reinforces condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and delivers strong rebukes in the form of sanctions and embargoes on Russian exports, India refuses to break with the Kremlin. New Delhi has increased purchases of Russian oil to more than a million barrels a day and in so doing, supports the continued abuse of human rights and assault on democracy in Eastern Europe.
Domestically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s worsening track record on human rights, especially regarding the persecution of religious minorities and political opponents, is reaching a critical point. Recently, after democratic protesters filled the streets of India demanding the Modi regime do more to stop the persecution of Muslim minorities, the government took familiar action and began to retaliate, attacking protesters and even bulldozing the houses of organizers and their family members.
Government-sanctioned persecution of religious minorities is an all too familiar tactic in India. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with real concern about increasing cases of religious repression, stating, “In India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we have seen rising attacks on people and places of worship.”
Political opponents and business persons are often subject to similar abuses.
The Modi government uses non-judicial, politically appointed bodies like the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) to attack American businesses, leading to the notorious case of Devas and the shuttering of a deal between India-based Future Retail and Amazon. These bodies operate below normal standards of due process, take up manufactured allegations against companies from the U.S. and elsewhere, and unlawfully nullify contracts or illegally liquidate the businesses entirely. Put simply, India is a hostile environment for Americans to do business.
The Modi government’s weaponization of India’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies has long been another oppressive tactic used to assert their power and punish those who refuse to kowtow to the government. Its government-controlled enforcement and intelligence agencies have personally targeted business owners and personnel from companies like Devas, even going as far as requesting the arrest and extradition of its co-founder, Indian-American businessman Ramachandran Viswanathan. The process for this request — issuing an Interpol Red Notice — is a form of intimidation practiced by others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a method of extending the government’s bullying beyond the country’s borders.
The Biden administration should set a minimum standard for India to enjoy the kind of relations they’d like, particularly on the economic front. Otherwise, it simply will not work – not for investors, not for businesses, and not for our democratic values.
If we have learned nothing else from trade politics over the last 10 years, it is that looking the other way to further a foreign policy goal when nations abuse trade relationships simply doesn’t work. Ultimately, the best way to preserve open trade relationships is by insisting on their fairness. The U.S. must engage India to show a true commitment to rule of law and fair treatment of foreign firms as a prerequisite to any agreement that deepens our relationship with India.
Without this commitment, the deeper economic and diplomatic relations on the drawing board are better kept in pencil before being turned into permanent ink. We strengthen U.S. interests and values by insisting on mutual action. That’s how you build the relationship with India that both countries deserve.
Daniel Sepulveda is an SVP at Platinum Advisors and served as Ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Economic Bureau from 2013-2017