WASHINGTON - On issues from human rights to Ukraine, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s record has raised alarm bells in Washington, but each time US officials decided the concerns should not derail the relationship.
Modi now faces his biggest risk yet after US prosecutors alleged that an Indian government official directed an assassination attempt on US soil -- but so far, President Joe Biden’s administration is again hoping to keep tensions under wraps.
Two months after Canada alleged New Delhi’s involvement in the killing of one of its citizens near Vancouver, the US Justice Department unveiled charges against an Indian man -- arrested in the Czech Republic on a US extradition request -- and alleged that an Indian official orchestrated the foiled plot.
In both cases, the targets were radical Sikh separatists promoting an independent state for their faith in the northern Indian state Punjab, where New Delhi crushed an insurgency three decades ago.
US presidents since the 1990s have sought a deeper partnership with India, saying the world’s two largest democracies share common values. But the new charges put India in the same league as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia which have faced US opprobrium for alleged transnational attacks.
“I think what we see is that the Modi government has become quite emboldened. This was such a brazen plot,” said Lisa Curtis, a supporter of closer US-India ties who coordinated South Asia policy at the White House under former president Donald Trump.
“It sort of fits in line with other things that we’ve seen happening with the Modi government in terms of human rights, press freedoms and even its stance on Russia,” said Curtis, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Journalists, activists and religious minorities have complained of harassment since the Hindu nationalist Modi took power in 2014, and India has rebuffed US calls to end its historic relationship with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
The United States sees India as like-minded on dealing with a rising China and has championed a greater role for New Delhi, including through the four-way “Quad” partnership with Australia and Japan.
Curtis said that Biden “appears to want to compartmentalize this issue from the broader strategic relationship.” Biden welcomed Modi with a gala state visit in June -- weeks after the Indian official made a first payment to the hitman, according to prosecutors -- and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited New Delhi together in early November.