Opinion: Why is Biden silent on Modi and India’s slide toward autocracy?

Two men sitting in chairs with a plant in front of them.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Biden at the White House on Sept. 24, 2021.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press )

India’s democracy is in danger. There is no sound moral, political or economic case for President Biden and other democratic leaders to pretend this isn’t happening.

Yet the red carpets keep being rolled out. This week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be welcomed for a lavish state dinner at the White House on Thursday aimed at fostering a “free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific” region.

On India’s current trajectory toward repression, this will be impossible to achieve, in the Indo-Pacific or in India itself. The country now ranks 161st on the World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit say it is no longer a fully free democracy.


India’s democracy is turning 75. But Prime Minister Modi’s government has waged a political war against the poor and Muslims, deviating from the nation’s founding ideals.

Aug. 15, 2022

This matters to us all. India is in effect the world’s biggest swing state in the struggle between democracies and autocracies. It is both the world’s largest democracy and a vital ally of the West in its rivalry with China.

The challenge for Biden and other world leaders is how to get a genuine win for democracy in India — how to not only recruit it into the democratic alliance, but also persuade its leaders to reverse course and safeguard constitutional rights and freedoms. Some contend these goals are in tension, but in fact they are one and the same. An autocratic India will be no fast friend in the struggle against autocracies. A sustainable alliance requires genuinely shared values.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t seem to have worked. On the contrary — Modi has been feted and praised from Canberra to Paris, including for his democratic credentials. Yet his regime continues to muzzle big media and weaponize the legal system to crack down on dissent and has barred nearly 17,000 NGOs from receiving foreign funding, from Oxfam to Delhi University.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is the latest target of regime lawfare. He was kicked out of Parliament in March after being convicted of defaming the prime minister’s name. The infamous Enforcement Directorate has increased investigations of political leaders by 400% since Modi came to power, with 95% of those targeted hailing from the opposition. And all this has been in service of a Hindu nationalist regime that can be menacing to minorities. Hate crimes against Muslims are up 300% since Modi came to power and new legislation threatens to disenfranchise a large percentage of the country’s 200 million Muslims.

If praise hasn’t worked, maybe it’s time to try a new strategy: criticism. While acknowledging problems with their own democracies, world leaders and other opinion shapers need to go public with the concerns about Indian democracy that advocates like me often hear them express privately.

There will be blowback, but good friends speak hard truths. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party will claim colonialism, bullying and Western hypocrisy. But both Modi and Indians care about their international reputation, and the truth is they’re not running to China any time soon — the two countries are nearly at war on India’s northern border.


India is profoundly culturally, linguistically, economically and politically entwined with the West and the democratic world. The relationship is rapidly deepening as Western countries “decouple” their economies from China and shift industry to India. That closeness makes a special relationship possible, but it has to be a principled friendship if it is to last.

And there is every reason to think that India could once again be a democracy that inspires the world. Its constitution remains strong, and its Supreme Court shows signs of willingness to stand up to the regime. It is governed by a highly federalized system with powerful state administrations, half of whom are not in the hands of Modi’s BJP. Rahul Gandhi may have been kicked out of parliament, but his Congress Party just had its strongest showing since 1989 in the large state elections in Karnataka, in southern India.

Narendra Modi’s suppression of dissent has brought India to its knees and tens of thousands of Indians to their deathbeds.

May 8, 2021

Authoritarians thrive on the aura of invincibility. Every time we compromise with India’s current leaders we reinforce that strongman image, and every time we criticize them we help puncture it.

The criticism should be fair and constructive. India’s government deserves credit for progress on several fronts. Just not on democratic freedoms. And the right kind of pushback may actually persuade Modi to rein in the fanatics in his regime. He is looking at possible successors such as his right-hand man and BJP pitbull Amit Shah, or Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state. These men would probably take India in an even darker direction. Populists tend to get ridden by the tigers they unleash. Modi may genuinely fear the legacy he is on course to leave.

But perhaps most importantly, international criticism remains fair game for the Indian media to cover, and is thus a powerful way to reach the Indian public. This is what the BJP fears most. Their repression has been carefully hidden and spun to win over Indian voters. Repression works well under this kind of veil, but when exposed, it can backfire and rapidly turn people against authoritarians.

Biden says democracy is “the single best way to realize the promise of our future.” He and many other influential supporters of democracy know that India’s democracy is in danger — it’s time for them to say so loud and clear.


Ricken Patel is founder and former chief executive of Avaaz, a global organization promoting democracy and activism, and is chair of Friends of Democracy.