The answer perhaps lies in the growing U.S.-India defense partnership that Rep. Ro Khanna has been championing.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has wrapped up his first official state visit to the United States after spending several days being feted by Washington’s political and business elite. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), along with Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Florida), were the architects of the invitation to Modi to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on June 22. The same evening, President Joe Biden hosted a grand state dinner for Modi. This celebration came at a time of escalating violence organized by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against India’s religious minorities.
In the northeastern state of Manipur, instead of halting interethnic violence, the BJP has used it as an occasion to attack Manipur’s Christians, leading to the burning of 249 churches, according to one source. In the northern state of Uttarakhand, the state’s BJP chief minister has run a campaign demonizing the state’s 1.4 million strong Muslim community, leading to calls for ethnic cleansing across several towns, with mobs demanding Muslims be expelled from their homes.
Why did Rep. Khanna, who positions himself as a progressive, choose to invite Modi in spite of the prime minister and the BJP’s track record of violence and bigotry — especially at a moment when the Uttarakhand and Manipur violence was escalating? The answer lies in the U.S.-India defense partnership and the drive toward war.
Just 15 years ago, India’s trade in arms with the U.S. stood at “near zero,” according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. By 2020, it had risen to $20 billion. On this visit alone, a flurry of defense deals were signed, including India’s purchase of 31 Predator drones. Khanna has been championing the U.S.-India defense partnership since at least 2022.
The Biden-Khanna celebration of Modi must therefore be seen, first and foremost, as a dramatic escalation of an already rising trend — the transformation of India into one of the U.S.’s most important military partners. Behind platitudes painting shared democracy as the basis of this “strategic partnership” is the hideous truth: the real basis is a defense-technology alignment driving toward war with China.
Khanna’s participation in this hawkish maneuver is a U-turn from his earlier stated position. In 2019, Khanna spoke out against Modi’s Hindu supremacist (Hindutva) ideology, saying “it is the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist[s] and Christians.”
Defending his status as a supporter of pluralism, and, at the same time, rolling out the red carpet for Modi, one of the world’s most notorious perpetrators of mass violence, Khanna last week hid behind his role as chair of the India caucus and “protocol towards an Indian PM.”
Clearly, this is just a fig leaf. The chairmanship of a caucus is not a constitutionally mandated role, and if Rep. Khanna’s propriety as a senior Democrat was at stake, then all he needed to do was reprise his statements against white supremacy and former President Donald Trump; in that case he stayed within the appropriate conduct of a responsible politician, but did not mince his words.
Khanna is participating in a much grander attempt by the West to rearrange global politics. On May 5, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Modi for the Bastille Day celebrations in France. On May 20, at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting in Japan, Biden told Modi, “I should take your autograph.” On May 23, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called Modi a rockstar, referring to him as “the Boss.”
It is clear that in the context of a growing cold war with China and Russia, the West had decided that it is time to draw India in, even if it means playing to the megalomania of an authoritarian leader. That China was on the menu was clarified by U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on June 24 when he said, “The challenges presented by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to both our nations were on the agenda yesterday, no question about that.”
The Biden-Khanna duo seems to have moved away from the autocracy vs. democracy framework, into a new space characterized by some segments of the neoliberal establishment as a narrower liberal “realist” position: that a Hindu Right authoritarian regime is an acceptable partner to maintain American hegemony. This is an absurdly myopic and blinkered view stuck in a mid-to-late 20th century paradigm. The first thing to note is that China is the emergent capitalist superpower. The current conflict between the U.S. and China is therefore less about Cold War or post–Cold War paradigms, and much more the equivalent of world historical transformations of capitalism — from the hegemony of Iberian capital to Dutch capital, Dutch to British, and from there to American capital. Change at this scale is resolvable only through complex diplomacy and the restructuring of the global economy, unless of course one is ready for global war. Arming a Hindu supremacist India is no solution. It is, merely, the lazy continuation of a post-World War II imaginary, where the U.S. repeatedly tried and failed to resolve geopolitical and trade crises through regional wars. The resolution sought by the U.S. is no less phantasmagorical — arm a Hindu supremacist India to the teeth and foment war at a moment when climate change is hurtling down at us, across a Himalayan region which is as fragile an ecosystem as you can get between the two nuclear powers.
With Modi facing a difficult general election in 2024, a dramatic expansion of military trade with the U.S. would allow him to present himself as the prime minister who is ready to take on China. Modi may go as far as saber rattling before the 2024 general elections, an echo of his military strikes in Pakistan before the 2019 elections. We may just be seeing the beginning of one such escalation that could lead to war between the world’s two most populous countries, both of which are nuclear powers.
This is the adventurism that the Biden-Khanna team is rolling out, and Modi, macho authoritarian that he is — and nationalism being his most important selling point — is the perfect partner. In fact, arguably, a government run by an ultra-nationalist right-wing party is a more convenient client to sell U.S. arms to than a moderate-centrist one. Aggressive posturing and machismo have been a constant with this government, including Modi bragging about his “56-inch chest.” Modi has also made multiple unilateral, sweeping policy decisions, with consequences being damned. These are clearly meant as a display of strength, and include the demonetization of India’s currency and a hastily announced COVID lockdown that left millions of migrants to walk home across thousands of miles. Arming India and touting India’s armed strength is closely aligned with how Modi imagines his politics. But opposition to Modi in the United States became more and more visible in the days leading up to the state dinner, including a flurry of articles in mainstream media. What became clear was that the opposition was not merely coming from a section of the Indian diaspora — the ranks of those opposing Modi had expanded dramatically. And even though foreign policy issues have tended to be far from the consciousness of U.S. voters, it is heartening that the Modi visit even inspired voices from the mainstream U.S. to raise notes of caution — including former President Obama in an interview with CNN. Of course, Obama was the first U.S. President to legitimize Modi.
Moreover, a number of U.S. liberal and left leaders, such as the Squad, who boycotted Modi’s speech to Congress, and New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, are beginning to recognize the harms that Hindu supremacy is visiting in the United States itself. This includes the August 2022 parading of hate symbols by Hindu supremacists in Edison, New Jersey; the passage of a supremacist and bigoted resolution in the Illinois state legislature, which was reversed after a grassroots campaign; and the filing of a lawsuit against the California Department of Civil Rights for its actions to protect caste-oppressed communities from discrimination on the basis of caste.
Most important was that, by the time Modi drove into the White House on June 22, more than 70 representatives and senators had signed a letter initiated by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, clearly articulating human rights concerns around the Modi regime. In effect, every person with whom Khanna has advocated against white supremacy in the U.S. has taken a stance against Modi. Sources close to other progressive congresspeople who did not want to be named told Truthout that Khanna’s colleagues are both puzzled and concerned about Khanna’s recent stances. Khanna may have been the sole dissenting vote in this year’s military budget, but the passage of that bill was already assured. How seriously can we take Khanna’s vote given his championing of the U.S.-India defense partnership?
After all, Modi and his Hindu supremacist backers in the U.S. are also hard at work radicalizing Hindu American communities, moving them closer to the far right. In April, the Republican party formally absorbed the Republican Hindu Coalition into its organization, which used to have Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon as its co-chair. Right-wing culture warrior and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was the keynote speaker at a gala for HinduPACT, which is part of the same network of Hindu supremacist organizations that Modi belongs to.
Feeling the pressure from the diaspora, Khanna has often invoked his grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, who fought for freedom from the British, as the representative of the brand of pluralism he embodies. But while Vidyalankar started out as a progressive educator involved in the Indian freedom movement, who even taught progressive firebrand Bhagat Singh, his political career trailed off in ignominy when he voted in favor of the first round of authoritarianism in India, the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi, which suspended fundamental rights, completely censored the press, and illegally imprisoned the entire opposition.
That is the slippery slope we hope Ro Khanna can get off. The Ro Khanna we want to celebrate is the one who stands with the grandfather who was a revolutionary educator. Not the person who compromises himself by siding with the global war machine.