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India reacts sharply to U.S. criticism over democracy and rights

NEW DELHI — After the Indian government last week arrested opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal in a case of alleged corruption just weeks before a national election, U.S. and German officials issued public statements gently reminding India about the importance of the rule of law.

The response from New Delhi was anything but gentle. Instead, it reflected the tough new brand of diplomacy embraced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and cheered by his nationalist supporters.

The Indian Foreign Ministry immediately summoned German and U.S. diplomats for a dressing-down in New Delhi. It lashed out at Washington for “casting aspersions” and making “completely unacceptable” comments about India’s internal affairs after the State Department reiterated its concerns about Kejriwal’s arrest and the freezing of an opposition party’s campaign funds.

On Thursday, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar raised a complaint frequently heard among Modi’s supporters: that the United States is moralizing, overbearing and prone to meddling.

“There are people in the world who want to lecture us on our judicial behavior,” Dhankhar told the American Bar Association at a conference in New Delhi. Dhankhar went on to dismiss U.S. officials’ recent comments about a controversial new Indian citizenship law as “ignorant.”

“We are not a nation to get scriptures from others,” Dhankhar said. “We are a nation with a civilizational ethos of more than 5,000 years.”

The shift in tone is one facet of India’s changing face as it grows into global power under Modi. While the Biden administration has assiduously wooed the Indian prime minister as a geopolitical partner and invested heavily in deepening technology cooperation with the world’s fifth-largest economy, it has been met with a Modi government that pushes back with a prickliness that has drawn occasional comparisons to China’s “Wolf Warriors” or officials from other more adversarial nations.

“This seems to be a trend the last few years with the foreign minister very vocally articulating a sense that India will also push back unlike in the past, when India would absorb some of these challenges,” said Harsh V. Pant, vice president of the Observatory Research Foundation, a think tank that has ties with the Indian Foreign Ministry. “This is a more self-assured government that says, ‘Look, we’re doing well, we’re coming back to power, we’re very comfortable politically, and we represent a wide swath of opinion that wants us to reflect that confidence.’”

While analysts and diplomats say the spats are just that — verbal clashes that are unlikely to derail the fundamental trajectory of deepening bilateral relations — they reflect the many serious differences between the two countries on subjects ranging from India’s relationship with Russia to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s treatment of religious minorities and its suppression of political opponents.

This month, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, who often goes viral on Indian social media when he delivers one of his trademark ripostes to Western critics, pointedly defended India’s friendship with Russia and accused the West of “cherry-picking principles” on Ukraine.

Jaishankar and other officials have also hit back at the West for harboring Sikh terrorists following U.S. and Canadian allegations that the Indian government may have been involved in a campaign of targeted killings of Sikhs abroad. After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly claimed in September that he had credible allegations tying Indian officials to the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil, India responded with fury — and then raised the ante by expelling 41 Canadian diplomats.

As a result, Western diplomats in New Delhi often say they struggle to calibrate their messaging with the Indian government, because even mild criticism in public can provoke a verbal lashing from the Hindu nationalist BJP government. In recent weeks, after India passed a law that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims fleeing persecution from Muslim-majority neighbors, U.S. Ambassador Eric Garcetti and other American officials spoke in public about the principle of equal treatment of different religious communities under law — drawing condemnation in India. Other U.S. allies chose to deliver their concerns in private.

C. Raja Mohan, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said both the U.S. and Indian leaders were in the midst of reelection campaigns. “The U.S. has to do its democracy-promotion bit, and India has to make its sovereignty argument for the home audience,” he said. “It’s theater.”

Indeed, the tough diplomatic rhetoric has fit neatly with Modi’s domestic brand. Backed by a pliant media and a vast social media messaging machine, he has cultivated an image as a leader who is more respected by world powers and more feared by India’s enemies than any Indian before him.

This week, television channels showed footage of U.S. and German diplomats being summoned as anchors explained to their audiences how India used “very strong words” to reprimand the Americans. “You will remember that this did not happen until very recently,” noted Sudhir Chaudhury, a prominent personality on the Hindi Aaj Tak channel.

“The meeting lasted 40 minutes. I’m sure the Indian side had a lot to say,” said Palki Sharma, another anchor popular on the Indian right. She added that today, the United States and Germany needed India, and “India’s message to both countries is: ‘stay in your lane.’”

The BJP’s tough diplomacy has also set alight its grass-roots supporters. After the U.S.-India spat exploded on Indian social media, some right-wing accounts dug up information about the Washington-based journalist who had asked the State Department about Kejriwal’s arrest and began to troll him as an agent backed by George Soros and the Ford Foundation.

Others, like Gujarat-based social media influencer Raushan Sinha, 35, celebrated India’s newfound swagger.

In January, he gained online notoriety by calling the Maldives’ new pro-China administration a “puppet government,” feuding with Maldivian ministers on X and leading a call for Indians to boycott the popular holiday destination.

This week, Sinha was again cheering the Modi government. In an X post to his 247,000 followers, Sinha posted a video of a U.S. diplomat being summoned and said, “The New India doesn’t give a damn about you.” He garnered 6,700 retweets.

In a telephone interview, Sinha said that many Indians of his generation support Modi precisely because he fills them with self-confidence and pride.

“Under the Modi government in the past 10 years, we have done great work, you can see things improving, so why should we tolerate such stuff?” Sinha said. “We, India, are not a third-class country. We are as important as you now. So start treating us the same way.”

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