“The way to understand India today and in the future is that this is a confident and growing nation that believes that its time has come,” says Ravi Agrawal, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and host of the podcast FP Live. “It isn’t going to kowtow to a U.S.-led vision or a West-led vision. In fact, India is going to go its own way.”
Still, in June, President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what was only the third formal state visit of his presidency. Agrawal, who spent many years as CNN’s New Delhi bureau chief, was watching closely. So were millions of people back in India.
“This is something that India cares about but also Indians care about,” Agrawal explains. “India’s global role is the topic of constant conversation on Indian prime-time TV, in Indian newspapers, in Indian advertising. It’s a big part of the Indian psyche.”
“India believes that its time has come.”
And it is a sign of how rapidly that global role is increasing that America gave such a warm reception to a man who had once been banned from setting foot on U.S. soil. When Modi was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, he was accused of encouraging attacks against Muslims during the 2002 riots. Since entering government, Modi’s Hindu Nationalist government has continued to curtail Muslims’ religious freedoms and has faced strident criticism at home and abroad for its crackdowns against minorities and the free press. Nevertheless, Biden, whose administration has made the fight against authoritarianism a cornerstone of his foreign policy, chose not to address the elephant in the room.
“Biden is looking at some sort of a larger picture and in that larger picture, what matters most of all is competition with China,” he adds. “In the last five years both countries have seen their relations with China sour. That is what has brought them closer together.”
If Washington was hoping for any concrete defense commitments, however, they were destined for disappointment.
“U.S. policymakers, and indeed the world, need to be very aware of what they’re dealing with in New Delhi,” says Agrawal. “If U.S. policymakers are under the illusion that when there’s a hypothetical war with China, India would come rushing to America’s aid, then they are mistaken.”
India, he says, has other priorities, and its own vision for the 21st century’s multipolar global order. Washington was not the only stop on Modi’s world tour. Straight after leaving the U.S., Modi went to Egypt to meet President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
“India sees itself as a potential leader of the Global South, an alternative voice on the global stage,” Agrawal says. “If it can be the voice of the Global South today, it can be a bigger player on the global stage tomorrow.”
Produced by Joshua Martin