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Biden to host India's Narendra Modi at the White House despite strained relations


India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, arrives in Washington, D.C., today for a meeting with President Biden. He'll also enjoy a state dinner and deliver a speech before a joint session of Congress. We've asked Daniel Markey to set the stage for all this and tell us what's at stake for both the U.S. and India. We called him because he's a former State Department official and now a senior adviser on South Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

DANIEL MARKEY: Good morning.

MARTIN: So let me just describe some of the obvious irritants from the U.S. side. India has maintained a trade relationship with Moscow despite the invasion of Ukraine, which it hasn't condemned, and it's defying sanctions by the U.S. and the international community in maintaining that relationship. How do you describe the state of the U.S.-India relationship right now?

MARKEY: Well, I'd actually say the U.S.-India relationship is very strong. The irritants that you've identified in terms of India's continued relationship with Russia are real. But I think the Biden administration is much more eager to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship and, in particular, the areas of convergence with respect to both sides being concerned about China - China's aggression in Asia and the rise of China, more generally. So I think that's where the focus will be for this trip. Specifically, on the Russia and oil issue, I think that, you know, the Biden administration is more eager to if not overlook that, at least downplay that and to recognize that India needs oil. Russia has oil. It's buying at a low cost. And that doesn't necessarily hurt U.S. interests directly.

MARTIN: So, you know, people might remember that the U.S. denied Modi a visa for nearly a decade for what were termed severe violations of religious freedom in India. So how does the administration think about that now? I mean, an invitation to a state dinner is considered a high honor. And, you know, of course, the opportunity to address Congress, which is not directly in White House control - but that is also an honor. So how do they think about that?

MARKEY: Well, here, too, I think the Biden administration is very eager to focus on the positive, the positive being that both India and the United States, again, are concerned about China. They're concerned about what China is doing along India's border. They're concerned about what the rise of China means for U.S. and Indian interests. But the human rights issue is real, and it's one that I think members of Congress are concerned about. There's been a letter written and sent to the Biden administration by members - many members of Congress, suggesting that they have not just concerns about what Modi did years ago, but the way that Modi is running India - concerns about eroding democracy in India, what that means for the rights of Indians themselves, but - and here's my concern - what it may mean in the future for how India conducts itself on the world stage. So, again, the Biden administration - eager to downplay these things, eager to celebrate the U.S.-India relationship, in some ways is smart about doing that. But there are underlying concerns about the state and trajectory of India's democracy.

MARTIN: And so how is that needle going to be threaded going forward, as briefly as you can?

MARKEY: Look, I think the Biden administration wants to keep the negative stuff in private. The positive stuff we'll celebrate in public. That's the way they want to balance it.

MARTIN: And what do you think?

MARKEY: I think that they ought to shift the balance a bit. I don't think they should chastise Narendra Modi in public, but neither do I think they should do anything that celebrates Modi the man, the individual, as a politician. I think they should be celebrating the U.S.-India relationship more broadly, working to advance specific U.S.-India interests, material interests. There's a lot that we can do without sort of celebrating or legitimizing Narendra Modi as an individual or leader.

MARTIN: That's Daniel Markey. He's a senior adviser on South Asia for the U.S. Institute of Peace, and he's the author of "China's Western Horizon: Beijing And The New Geopolitics Of Eurasia." Mr. Markey, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

MARKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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