Visit comes as rights groups and political opponents accuse Modi of stifling dissent and pursuing anti-Muslim policies back home.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to the United States to meet with President Joe Biden and address the Congress, with military and technological ties on the agenda as his hosts seek a regional counter to China.
“We seek to deepen India-USA ties in key sectors like trade, commerce, innovation, technology and other such areas,” Modi posted on Twitter before he left on Tuesday for his first state visit to the US since assuming power in 2014.
The leader of the world’s most populous nation will attend a state dinner at the White House on Thursday – only Biden’s third since his inauguration.
Hailed by New Delhi as an “historic” chance to “expand and consolidate” ties, the visit comes at a time of rising concerns over the treatment of its Muslim minority, human rights, and democratic backsliding under the Hindu nationalist leader.
But Biden has made clear he sees US ties to India as a defining relationship that will jointly address some of the most difficult global challenges in coming years, including climate change, disruptions related to artificial intelligence, and China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific.
Visit amid rights concerns
Modi’s three-day visit to the US comes amid human rights groups and political opponents accusing the Indian leader of stifling dissent and pursuing divisive policies that discriminate against Muslims and other minorities.
Elaine Pearson, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, urged Biden in a letter not to shy away from confronting Modi on India’s “worsening human rights situation”.
Her organisation plans a Tuesday screening in Washington of a BBC documentary critical of Modi that was banned by the Indian government.
The documentary delves into Modi’s oversight as chief minister of Gujarat during the deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots that left more than 1,000 dead. Rights groups say the official death toll is an undercount.
In 2005, Washington revoked Modi’s visa to the US, citing concerns that he did not act to stop the Gujarat violence. An investigation approved by India’s Supreme Court later absolved Modi, but the stain of the dark moment has lingered.
More recently, Modi has faced criticism over legislation amending the country’s citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalisation for some migrants but excludes Muslims, a rise in violence against Muslims and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists, and the recent conviction of India’s main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, for mocking Modi’s surname.
“Modi’s government has also demonstrated blatant bias in protecting BJP supporters and affiliates accused in a range of crimes, including murder, assault, corruption, and sexual violence,” Pearson wrote, using the initials for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
“At the international level, Modi’s government has often proven unwilling to stand with other governments on key human rights crises, abstaining or refraining from condemning grave human rights violations elsewhere.”
New Delhi-based rights activist Kavita Krishnan told Al Jazeera Biden is “acting as a propagandist for Modi by publicly saying that Modi is so popular and I should take his autograph”.
In May, during a meeting of the Quad, an international partnership of the US, Australia, India and Japan, in Hiroshima, Biden had jokingly said he should take Modi’s autograph given how tickets for the dinner he is hosting at the White House have sold out. “You are too popular,” he said.
“When you do that, it means you are actively participating in Modi’s politics where he tries to project himself as a world leader who is exceptionally popular,” Krishnan told Al Jazeera.
By doing so, she said, the US is “telling the world as well as the vulnerable people in India that human rights don’t really matter if a leader is popular”.
“Then why talk of human rights? The same then applies to Hitler, Putin, and Trump,” she said. “Why is India getting a different treatment [from US]? Is it because India is a big market and they are willing to throw Indians under the bus since they want to woo Modi? What is it? This is the question I want to ask.”
The Indian government has continually defended its human rights record and insisted that the country’s democratic principles remain robust.
India’s Russia ties
The US has also avoided publicly chastising India for its muted criticism of old ally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and New Delhi’s growing reliance on Russian oil, which stands at 19 percent of India’s annual crude imports from two percent in 2021.
When asked by the Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Monday about critical comments in the US for not taking a more forceful stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Modi said: “I don’t think this type of perception is widespread in the US. I think India’s position is well known and well understood in the entire world. The world has full confidence that India’s top-most priority is peace.”
Modi in the interview called for changes to global institutions like the United Nations to adapt them for an increasingly “multipolar world order”, and make them more representative of the world’s less-affluent countries.
India would like to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, he said. “The world should be asked if it wants India to be there.”
Trade between the US and India in 2022 climbed to a record $191bn. The nearly five million Indian diaspora in the US – its wealthiest ethnic group – has become an economic, cultural and political powerhouse.
Biden has sought to reinvigorate the Quad while the US defence sales to India have risen from near zero in 2008 to more than $20bn in 2020.
Modi’s US visit begins on Wednesday when he will lead foreign dignitaries and bureaucrats in a session for International Yoga Day at the UN Secretariat in New York. Yoga, an ancient discipline first practised by Hindu sages, is now one of India’s most successful cultural exports after Bollywood.
Nine years ago, Modi successfully lobbied the UN to designate June 21 as International Yoga Day. Since then, he has harnessed yoga as a cultural soft power to stretch his nation’s diplomatic reach and project himself as an “ascetic” leader.
The official state visit portion of Modi’s trip starts on Thursday and includes an Oval Office meeting with Biden, an address to a joint meeting of Congress, and a lavish White House dinner hosted by Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
On Friday, Modi will be honoured at a State Department luncheon hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and he is scheduled to address members of the Indian diaspora before leaving Washington.
India’s ANI news agency on Tuesday said Modi will also meet Tesla’s Elon Musk, who also owns Twitter, among other business leaders during the trip.
The Indian leader will depart for Egypt from the US for a two-day visit starting Saturday.