Fareed Zakaria’s column in the Washington Post urges the administration not to be too aggressive in criticizing India’s human rights record. He says:

There is a … critique of the overtures toward Modi that deal with his government’s policies toward minorities, the media, the judiciary and other independent agencies in the democratic system. Many of these criticisms are accurate. Modi has presided over a decay of democracy in India; all three of the major international think tanks that measure the quality of democratic governance have downgraded India in recent years. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute judges that India no longer ranks as a democracy at all, describing it instead as an “electoral autocracy.”

But how Washington should handle democratic decay in a country like India is a complicated problem. Modi is extremely popular in India and, what’s more, his Hindu nationalism is also popular. Like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Viktor Orban in Hungary, Modi has tapped into an illiberal vein in India that scorns minorities, checks and balances, and liberal constitutionalism. In all these places, the nationalist-populist leader sets himself and his many followers against the old, secular, cosmopolitan elite that has ruled the country for decades. Truth be told, there is often much frustration with that elite, an establishment that seems disconnected from the heartland of the nation, from ordinary people and their ideas and emotions.

I sometimes wonder whether all these countries are revealing that the values of an open society — pluralism, tolerance, secularism — were an import from the era of the West’s dominance in the world, and that the erosion of these ideals is gradually revealing a more authentic, less tolerant nationalism. Former U.S. ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith said India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, told him, “I am the last Englishman to rule India.” The country Nehru and his fellow post-independence leaders created was built on values that its founders drew from their deep associations with Britain and the West. Their India was a secular, pluralistic, democratic and socialist state. All of those ideals have been fading in India in recent years.

In any event, lecturing Modi on human rights is not the best way for the Biden administration to deal with him. That would backfire — not only with him but also with most Indians who would resent Western bullying. Far better to ally with India’s society itself, expanding ties with its businesses, press, nongovernmental organizations, cultural groups and others. India is one of the most pro-American countries in the world, something that is palpable when you are there. Companies, students, scholars, activists — all want closer ties with the United States.

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