Although the visiting US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, brought up human rights concerns as slated (especially in the context of the CAA which is tilted against a particular religious community, and also rights violations in Kashmir), these were no different from anxieties which are staple fare in India’s intense domestic debates since the first Modi government took office in 2014, occasioning former US president Barack Obama to speak of a “democracy deficit” as early as 2015.
Even so, Mr Blinken engaged in no rhetoric. He did not lecture. He did not permit the question of human rights to become headline news. Showing statesmanship, the visitor noted that democracy was a “work in progress” wherever the system was in existence, including in his own country. This was an indirect acknowledgment of the tawdry events of January this year when far right thugs assaulted Capitol Hill, threatening America’s 250-year-old democracy. What’s more, the secretary of state spoke of the “free thinking” people of India and the successful system of voting in this country, which is a tribute.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar, in this context, could have skipped the temptation to brandish the questionable proposition that it was a moral obligation on “polities” to “right the wrongs of history”. This is the sort of thing the Chinese chauvinists — and other nativists — come up with when they wield the club while straying outside their borders or to repress sections of their own people.
Other than announcing a US 25-million-dollar support for anti-Covid vaccines for India (which did push us in the category of supplicants — not a role we envisioned at the start of the fight against the virus when we thought we’d play the part of saviours on the world platform), this was evidently not a visit for specific announcements. Rather, Mr Blinken used the opportunity to lay out the ideological horizon of the US-led Western powers since the demise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War in which communism was the adversary.
In a world of “democratic recession” — to use an expression of Mr Blinken — which occurred after the Cold War, the ideological fight on the international stage that the US would like to head is against authoritarianism, of which Beijing has emerged as the headquarters. To seek to draft India into this is only natural.
In this context, the US sees China as a competitor and an adversary in some fields, but notably also as a country with which cooperation is possible — say in the field of trade, climate change, and inducing it to accept a rules-based international order. Also, unlike India, the US does not have a territorial dispute with China. Therein lies India’s challenge — how to manage a powerful neighbour with which both bilateral and international cooperation are indeed possible while deterring its aggressive actions against this country. In the larger sense, New Delhi may expect to do its own accounts as far as China goes.
It seems a pity that the discussion on Afghanistan, which is of immediate and significant concern to us, yielded only generalities from the US side. We either did not press the Americans enough on being more specific in the event of a military takeover by the Taliban, or that our efforts did not bear fruit. It was too general of Mr Blinken to say that Afghanistan would become a “pariah” state if the Pakistan-backed insurgents took over forcibly. In any case, that has been said before. It is evident that India would have to use its own wits in the Afghan context. On the whole, the Blinken visit seems to have been only to touch base.