President Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House on Monday for their first face-to-face meeting as the administration seeks to revive the stagnant relationship between the nations and enlist Asia’s largest democracy in its broader regional strategy.
Modi was received by the president at a lavish working dinner on Monday night even though the prime minister was on a religious fast, and their agenda includes discussions Tuesday on economic investment, regional security and climate change. But the specter of what many think will be left unspoken — human rights and civil society issues — hangs over the visit.
The administration’s renewed interest in India — Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have visited since Modi’s landslide victory in May — comes as Obama seeks to reinvigorate his Asia policy ahead of a trip to the region in November. Rekindling the relationship with India is part of a U.S. effort to hedge against the broadening economic and military clout of China, whose President Xi Jinping recently met with Modi in New Delhi.
In remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Monday, Modi asserted that India, the world’s second-most-populous country, will challenge China for primacy this century.
“Whether it belongs to India or China is something people are debating,” he said.
Modi’s visit comes at a time when India has felt overlooked by the Obama administration’s focus on other countries in Asia and the Middle East, analysts said, and the prime minister’s personal relationship with the United States is fraught with distrust based on his human rights record from a decade earlier.
The State Department revoked Modi’s visa in 2005 on grounds that he had violated religious freedom by not doing enough to stop Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. More than 1,000 people were killed.
A federal court in New York issued Modi a summons last week, compelling him to respond to a lawsuit accusing him of human rights abuses. Heads of state have immunity from lawsuits in American courts.
That record could present an awkward juxtaposition Tuesday as the Obama administration attempts to present a united front. Modi’s arrival in Washington came on the same day that White House press secretary Josh Earnest urged authorities in Beijing to “exercise restraint” in response to large pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Human rights advocates fear that a discussion of ongoing religious persecution in India will get short shrift during Modi’s visit as the two sides spend most of their time on economic and security interests.
John Sifton, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said that in recent years in India there has been “a clear trend toward closing the space that civil society, journalists, citizens have to speak freely. It’s not Russia, it’s definitely not China, but it’s also not what you’d expect in a modern democracy.”
Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow specializing in South Asia issues at the Brookings Institution, said the timing of Modi’s visit presents both opportunities and challenges for the White House.
“I’m sure they will continue to emphasize India democracy, in explicit contrast with China,” he said. “But there are unpleasant questions about Modi’s own background and why he was barred from the U.S.”
On Sunday, violent clashes erupted between Hindus and Muslims in an area of Gujarat. More than 140 people were arrested. A group of members of Congress said in a letter to Obama that the clashes echoed the 2002 violence, and urged the president to open a dialogue “about the positive steps his government can take in preventing oppression and encouraging religious inclusion.”
White House officials said the administration supports Modi, who has pledged to represent all of India’s 1 billion people. The prime minister was warmly welcomed by a crowd of 19,000 people, most of them Indian American, for a speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Obama intends to highlight “that we have the kind of strategic partnership that is focused on a wide of variety of areas,” Earnest said Monday.
On that front, the White House has a chance to contrast Modi’s visit against the bilateral meeting between Modi and Xi in New Dehli two weeks ago. Their discussions were designed to highlight increased economic ties, but the meeting was overshadowed by a tense standoff between Chinese and Indian troops along the border in the Ladakh region in the north of India.
The Obama administration probably will attempt to enlist New Delhi to pressure China to cease its maritime aggression in the South China Sea and likely will push for greater investment from India in East Asia to help bolster Obama’s so-called “rebalance” of U.S. attention to the region, analysts said.
At the same time, however, the president will have to assuage growing doubts among the Indian leadership about the U.S. commitment to its regional partners at a time when the administration is preoccupied by Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and a U.S. military campaign against radical Islamists in the Middle East.
“When push comes to shove, will the U.S. back India up or ignore it because its economic relations with China are so strong?” said Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project. “These are the questions in the back of their minds. But it’s not like they want to commit to a [security] alliance either, so there will always be a certain amount of questions about the reliability of the relationship.”
Annie Gowen in New Delhi and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.