Panelists discuss the future of U.S. policy towards India and Pakistan under the Biden administration, including humanitarian aid and the recent COVID-19 spike in India, China’s geopolitical influence in the region, the domestic turmoil of each country, and the status of democratic norms throughout South Asia.
The Transition 2021 series examines the major foreign policy issues confronting the Biden administration.
LUCE: Thank you very much, Sara. And it’s always a pleasure to moderate or preside over a CFR event, even though technically, as a Brit, I’m not permitted to join CFR. I don’t hold that against you. And as it happens, this afternoon I was on a podcast with Richard Haass. So I’ve got CFR on the brain. I’ve also got this very important topic on the brain, about South Asia geopolitics and how the Biden administration is going to approach the region. And it’s a really interesting time, a really interesting moment for us to be addressing this topic.
You know, we’ve got, what, 120, 130 days into the Biden administration. There is clearly continued and deepening talk of a new Cold War with China. India is seen by many, perhaps rightly, as one of the most important if not the most important pieces on that U.S.-China chessboard. The Biden administration is also talking of viewing the world as autocracies versus democracies. And there are many questions about whether India any longer technically qualifies as a liberal democracy, rather as an illiberal one. There has been great activity with the quad in the early days of the Biden administration. And of course, there is its announcement that it’s going to be withdrawing from Afghanistan, which raises all kinds of Pakistan questions, and questions about the Pakistan-Taliban relationship in that context. So the COVID pandemic will not be ignored either. We’re in the midst of a real tragedy in India and in the broader—large parts of the broader South Asian region.
And I’d like to talk to this distinguished panel about that. So to get to the panel, we have three great people. Shamila Chaudhary, who’s head of the America Pakistan Foundation at the New America Foundation here in Washington, D.C. We have Sumit Ganguly from Indian University, well known to anybody interested in India. And we have Kenneth Juster, Ambassador Juster, who was the last ambassador to—U.S. ambassador to India, nobody having yet been nominated to replace him with the Biden administration. And so the most recent U.S. ambassador in Delhi. A great panel to discuss this important topic.
So let me open with you, Ambassador. Now, a lot of people, particularly from the point of view of American domestic policy, see, quite rightly, a big disruption between Trump and Biden, massive change. But if you’re looking at it from an Indo-Pacific region, what you might see is something quite different, which is continuity. The Quad is something the Trump administration tried to revive—was reviving, rather. The Biden administration, of course, has picked that up and revived it more. The broader framing of U.S.-China confrontation and cooperation, that sort of awkward dance between the U.S. and China, talk of a new Cold War, all of that pretty much continuity. And then of course we’ve got this idea of India and the United States as natural allies if not formal allies, which the Trump administration had a view—and, I imagine, pushed hard when you were in Delhi.
So my question to you is: Is there anything that would actually disrupt this idea in American eyes nowadays, given this continuity between Trump and Biden on South Asia? Is there anything that would disrupt India as the natural ally, that piece on the chessboard? And in turn, is there anything in India—Modi’s India or other Indias—that would disrupt the Indian idea, the imperative of having closer ties with the United States?
JUSTER: Well, thank you very much, Ed, for that question. I agree with you that there has been enormous continuity, really over the last twenty years, in U.S.-Indian relations. The relationship began to be transformed at the very end of the Clinton administration with President Clinton’s trip to India. And then President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Vajpayee really decided to change the relationship significantly and transformed it with a variety of milestones along the way, but really increasing India’s access to technology and ultimately concluding a civil nuclear deal.
And across all areas, we work together India’s neither an ally nor an adversary of the United States, but an increasingly important strategic partner in what has now been termed the Indo-Pacific region. And so each administration has really built on the successes of the previous administration. And before I address your specific question on the challenges ahead, I would just say that in the last administration the concept of the Indo-Pacific really was developed by the United States, by India, and by other countries in the region with ASEAN centrality. And that has been picked up by the Biden administration. They created the position of coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, and put an experienced hand, Kurt Campbell, in that role.
The Quad, which had first come about in 2004 in response to the tsunami but fell out of favor in about 2007, was resurrected in November of 2017, after the Doklam incident, where the Chinese sort of occupied territory where China, Bhutan, and India came together. And from the working level worked itself up to ministerials in 2019 and 2020. And indeed, in October of 2020 the foreign ministers of India, Australia, Japan, the United States met in person, despite the COVID pandemic. And the Biden administration has picked up on that also by elevating the Quad to a summit meeting in March of this year, and planning to have an in-person summit later. And we can talk more about the Quad down the road.
We still want to have 2+2 ministerials, I think, between the two countries, and advance that as well because even as we work together in a Quad and broader groupings, it’s still important that the United States and India continue to build their own strategic partnership. Now, there have always been challenges, and there are going to be some coming up. The climate issue potentially could be one, international trade. And as you mentioned, sort of democratic and social issues. My sense is that we will deal with those in different ways along the line. Another one I would mention is India’s foreign policy is oriented toward what they call strategic autonomy. And yet, as we get an increasingly close defense relationship, there are going to be questions about how much sensitive technology and weaponry the United States can share with India if it continues to purchase sophisticated weapons from Russia, which has historically been a big supplier for India.
So these will be challenges in the days ahead. And I can give you my perspective on that. But let me stop there and you can follow up as you’d like.
LUCE: I mean, just a very quick follow up, because, you know, I’m aware of the limited time and the massive scope of this subject. But does it—does India and America need to share values as opposed to just interests, where their interests—their mutual fear of China is sufficient reason for these two countries to cooperate closely? In other words, does this talk of illiberal democracy and an increasingly Hindu nationalist India, does this need to matter?
JUSTER: I think it certainly strengthens the relationship the more things we have in common at a people-to-people level and in terms of values. We have very strong people-to-people relationships. And we have strong business ties, although I worry sometimes that the business ties may suffer as economies potentially become more protectionist in the years ahead. And it helps if we share values, but it’s all a question of relativity. We share values relative to China and the expansionist efforts of the Chinese. And we share values in terms of what we look at the Indo-Pacific region in terms of an open and free region, in terms of one that’s a rules-based order, respects territorial integrity, does not have coercive economics.
But the question is whether all of the values in terms of the right to protest, a free press, and issues of that nature are completely in sync. And that’s a question that will play out over the next few years. There are dimensions of democracy that we share very well. India is a very strong electoral democracy. They have six hundred to seven hundred million people come out to vote without any big problems occurring. But there have been over the recent years more concerns about civil liberties and some of the majoritarian policies.
LUCE: OK. Shamila, I’m going to get to you in one moment, but I want to just sort of stick to the internal character of India for a second. So, Sumit, you’ve written recently about how Modi’s mishandled the pandemic, more about his image than about the well-being of Indians. And you’ve written very sort of coruscatingly about Modi more generally. I guess some people see him as a sort of—India’s as an emergence of a massive version of Hungary, and him as the Viktor Orbán of the region. Before I moved to India many years ago, I was advised by a friend that: Remember, India—in India, things are never as good or as bad as they seem. Are things that bad? Or will India, just by its inherent pluralism, manage nevertheless to remain this pluralistic, noisy, dissenting, and therefore ultimately democratic, culture, regardless of what’s going on?
GANGULY: It is certainly my hope that India will maintain its noisy, haphazard, chaotic democracy in the years ahead. That is my fervent hope. My fear, on the other hand, is that it won’t, because of the profoundly illiberal forces that Modi has not only unleashed but has also encouraged. There is a streak illiberalism that had long existed in Indian political culture, but that was mostly dormant. Now those furies have been unleashed and the genie is out of the bottle. And it’s unclear to me whether the countervailing forces will remain powerful enough to be able to return the stopper to the bottle and force the genie back into that bottle. I certainly hope that will be the case. But at the current moment, things look rather dire.
LUCE: Talk to us a little bit about Modi’s handling of COVID.
GANGULY: It has been, in one word, shambolic. First of all, given his characteristically abrupt decision-making model, as was evident with the way he handled demonization—removing more than 80 percent of all currency from circulation virtually overnight, leaving any number of Indians completely in the lurch as a consequence, therefore. The completely flawed rollout of the goods and services tax, which I happen to support, but I thought the handling of it was disastrous.
In a markedly similar fashion, in March 2020, with four hours’ notice, Modi shut down the country for twenty-one days, leaving over one hundred million migrant workers to the tender mercies of India’s climate and the prospect of traveling several hundred kilometers on their own, because bus and train services—the two sources of transportation that they would rely on to return to their native villages—were essentially withdrawn. And no provisions of any consequence were made by the Modi administration to provide any level of social welfare to these hapless individuals. And all of this, while it did limit the spread of the disease initially, of the virus initially, it came at an extraordinary human cost.
Worse still, during this hiatus, Modi should have seized the initiative to stockpile vaccinations, to stockpile personal protective equipment, to stockpile ventilators, and the like—especially given the virtually Dickensian quality of India’s public health system. This is not a surprise to anyone, that the public health system was ramshackle to begin with. And given that, the country and the leadership should have moved with considerable dispatch to use those twenty-one days to at least try and plug the myriad gaps that exist in India’s public health system. This was not done.
LUCE: So I want to get back later to the sort of diplomatic dimension to the pandemic, because the Biden administration is—it’s a very relevant topic for the Biden administration and its actions in the region.
Shamila, Indian friend of mine, and many of you I’m sure, Ramachandra Guha, got himself cancelled probably for the fifth time by the Modi government when he described India nowadays as a Hindu Pakistan. It strikes me that there are sort of unintended side effects to that, if indeed he was right in calling India a Hindu Pakistan, which is that India’s fear of Pakistan ought to be less existential, and Pakistan’s fear of India ought to be less existential. We do, as we speak, happen to be in sort of one of those brief lulls, hopefully a prolonged one, in Indo-Pakistan tensions. Right now there’s relatively sort of low-key positive atmosphere between the two. But given just the reversion to type to mean in the history of relations between India and Pakistan, how long is that going to last? And what impact does Modi have, or has he had, on India-Pakistan relations?
CHAUDHARY: So it’s a good question. I love how you saved the easy question for me, Ed. (Laughs.) But it’s good you didn’t ask this one first. I would have taken the entire thirty minutes. So I think both countries are—you know, they continue to be beholden to the political narratives that established, you know, them at birth. Like, after the British left. And they’re very much beholden to that. India has gone off in this, you know, unexpected for many of us trajectory of abandoning secularism in some respects, right, kind of stoking that. And it’s very similar to what Pakistan had to do in the early days of its existence, of relying on Islamist narratives and purist kind of interpretations of Islam and the subcontinent, which were actually just not true, right? And so—and harkening back to this, like, era of history in South Asia that just was—didn’t exist.
And so they’ve done this—a little bit of a flip-flop. And I think it’s not unusual to me, if you put it into the larger context of what’s happening in the world in terms of populist narratives and the relationship between ordinary citizens and democracies. So it’s a very democratic thing that’s happening, right? It’s turning into this Hindu version of Pakistan because it’s seeing that it’s—the state has not delivered on certain things. And that doesn’t just mean jobs or good roads. It also means, you know, cultivating a certain sense of interpretation of cultural heritage. So I think it’s—I mean, it’s fascinating to watch, but I take no joy in watching it happen.
So but on that point, I just—I want to say that while the political narratives have been fairly consistent, I do think the nature of the threat has changed, and the systems in place to address threats are completely unprepared. For example, when we look at the U.S. leaving Afghanistan or we look at India and Pakistan, we think of, OK, what are we going to do about militant groups? What are we going to do about a lone wolf attack? What do we do if the two countries escalate?
However, I don’t think any of that really matters if you think about what the pandemic has done and how it’s unveiled kind of the—how poor governance and bad relationships and great power competition can actually further the negative effects of a pandemic. So these countries are not prepared to deal with what’s coming, frankly. An India-Pakistan rivalry is not sustainable if we want to think about the spread of the pandemic in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. Then you have refugees flowing across borders. There’s just a lot of considerations that this post—this 9/11 kind of security framework doesn’t address. And I think India and Pakistan have gotten wrapped up unto it.
And I have to say, I have to talk about Bangladesh—because we probably won’t talk about it—but climate refugees in Bangladesh, and kind of that—the overlap with that issue, and as it relates to India and Pakistan as well. So there’s just—I think that these narratives no longer suit—are no longer suitable to the modern world that we live in.
LUCE: Presumably, I mean, if, as expected and scheduled, the Biden administration—well, the United States and NATO allies do withdraw before September, mostly by July, from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s not going to allow a pandemic to stop it.
CHAUDHARY: No. I don’t think that—again, it’s sort of the framing of how we look at what the Taliban is and who they are. I’m just speaking from my own experience. I’ve been working on these issues for, you know, two decades. I don’t—I have not talked to the Taliban or talked to people related to the Taliban, or, you know, I haven’t been as informed as well as I could be to make an assessment of who are they, right? And of course, governments have intelligence—of course. But Afghanistan has gone through this massive transformation. There’s a new—a whole new generation of young people who’ve lived only through war, right? They’re very active in civil society. They’re going to hold their leaders accountable in a different way.
There’s a spotlight on every country in the world because of technology and social media. That will hold people accountable in a different way. I think we are seeing that happen with the, you know, Israeli-Palestinian narrative right now, which it’s actually being—you know, it’s being amplified in new ways because of social media. So I don’t think it’s a matter of what’s going to stop or encourage the Taliban. It’s a matter of how all these different issues—transnational, technology, bilateral interests, and then other third parties coming into the region—how they interface with what the Taliban needs. Like, the Taliban’s going to need weapons. They’re going to need development money. They’re going to need to pay off people. Where is all that going to come from? I think we have to think about it in a much more kind of sophisticated way, rather than just good or bad.
LUCE: OK. Well, Ambassador, clearly this is one area of Indian neuralgia, if you like. Pakistan seeks strategic depth, as they say, in Afghanistan—(inaudible)—in the ’90s with the Taliban. And a wide expectation, whether it’s right or wrong, is that that’s—we are seeing another opportunity for the Taliban to take over again. But that’s just sort of one of the broader sort of Indian foreign policy concerns. The central one is China, which of course is Pakistan’s closest ally. And the central expression of American-Indian cooperation with each other, and with Japan, and with Australia, but also of shared concern over China, is the Quad. Could the Quad develop, in your view, into a formal—a much more formal kind of military alliance? Or are alliances just off the menu when it comes to India?
JUSTER: I think at this point a military alliance is not in the cards, but who knows what the future might hold depending on the Chinese activities. The China-India relationship goes back thousands of years. And obviously they had a war in 1962. They never were able to settle on their border. But they were able to manage that issue. And they had a series of talks and sort of protocols that they worked out. But that started to really unravel about 2017, with the Doklam event I referred to. The Indians were the one country that were totally against the Belt and Road Initiative of the Chinese.
And Prime Minister Modi sought to try to manage this with informal summits with President Xi, but then in 2020 you had suddenly the Chinese quite unexpectedly massing approximately 50,000 troops on the northern border with India, taking over some contested territory. They were at a standoff. The Indians had to mobilize significantly. You had the Chinese making further claims on Bhutan and some in eastern India, northeastern Arunachal Pradesh, and this has really propelled the Indians to accelerate its involvement in the Quad and do some things with the United States and the Quad in terms of maritime security and military exercises that they might not have done originally.
But the Indians still recognize that China is a very formidable country on its border. It’s in a different geographical position and historical position than we are. And they don’t want to antagonize the Chinese with military talk of alliances, containment, and the like. So the Quad, as we saw in the Quad summit, is still focusing on issues such as vaccine diplomacy, on climate issues, on emerging technology issues, on humanitarian assistance, cybersecurity, counterterrorism. And it’ll have to evolve slowly and, quite frankly, at the pace that the Indians are comfortable with relative to the situation in China.
It’s not inconceivable that if the Chinese are very aggressive and expansionist there will be more of a defense and security dimension to the Quad. But I don’t think anyone is feeling it now as a potential military alliance or NATO alliance. And in fact, if we were to push that on the Indians, they would have, I think, quite an allergic reaction to the Quad, and pull back to a certain degree.
LUCE: So what happens when Biden issues his invitations for this summit of democracy that he’s going to be having later this year? Does he invite India? And if he does, does India want to be identified with that kind of—that kind of Western-led grouping? And I mean, I think both you, Ken, and also Sumit, I’d be interested in that answer.
JUSTER: Yeah. I mean, I think that—I can’t speak for the Biden administration. My expectation would be that they would invite India. India was invited to an expanded G-7, to make it a G-10. Quite frankly, I think the government of India welcomes the notion that it is part of a broader group of democracies, as other people may speak of it being an illiberal democracy. And the group of democracies, again, is relative to the autocracies you’re seeing in China and other countries. So I would expect that India would be included. I would expect that they would want to be invited. And I think they still view themselves as the world’s largest democracies. But there are some trends that if they continued would be increasingly troubling.
LUCE: And, by the way, Sumit, before you answer the same question, I should mention that questions that—I think I’m right in saying, and I ought to know because I am the presider, but I think I’m right in saying should be posed by the chat panel in your Zoom screen.
GANGULY: My suspicion is that India will be invited, because not inviting India would be construed as a kind of a slap in the face in New Delhi. India still, under the Modi administration, has a self-image as a working democracy, and is quite sensitive to criticisms on this score, as is happening currently with social media right now, of India toying with the idea of limiting social media because of its sensitivity to sort of sustained criticism on social media. Unfortunately, I think they’re only undermining their own case, which is a pity, and particularly on the eve of Subrahmanyan Jaishankar’s visit to the United States, I think this is singularly maladroit on the part of the Modi administration. That said, the bottom line is that if the Indians were not invited, it would create a bit of a rift in U.S.-India—in the U.S.-Indian relationship.
LUCE: Yeah. Shamila—I mean, I want to ask both Shamila and Sumit this question, a parallel question, but very related as we look at how the Biden administration’s going to handle relations with countries in this region. The China-Pakistan relationship, you know, is—what is it? Deeper than—higher than the mountains and deeper than the sea, and I can’t remember what the—
CHAUDHARY: It’s quite lovely, yes. (Laughs.)
LUCE: But that’s been—that’s been longstanding and closer than the U.S.-India relationship. What, if anything, could disrupt that?
CHAUDHARY: So, you know, if you—if you, like, try to google kind of commentary on this, like, pre-CPEC and post-CPEC, it’s kind of interesting what you’ll find. And, you know, before CPEC, before China put all this money into Pakistan, it was a positive relationship, but it was just—it was very quiet, and all about, you know, military. And we didn’t really understand or know too much about it. After CPEC, it actually—I think it—more tensions emerged, but I don’t know that they were necessarily new tensions. We can assume that they would have tensions before as well. They just don’t air their dirty laundry in public. They don’t work out their conflicts through the media.
And I think we, as Americans or Western kind of policymakers, we often do do that, because it’s a powerful tool for us. So, again, the framing is important here. What are tensions that could derail kind of cooperation? I think that’s an important way to look at it. I think—I actually don’t think much, to be honest. A lot of folks thought that COVID was going to be something that created distrust between the two countries, and we haven’t really seen that. Now, we have seen a heightened distrust between Pakistani civil society and, you know, disenfranchised communities, and people who are not part of the political economic elite, or, you know, people who don’t stand to benefit from CPEC.
That I think is a major consideration for politicians and governance in Pakistan. They have to think, how does that play out in terms of their viability, their longevity? It will be an issue. And they all own it now, right? Every party owns it in Pakistan. So I think we just—we want to be very mindful that when we think about the relationship also it’s the relationship between the military and the political elite and the Chinese. It doesn’t go that much deeper than that.
LUCE: I mean, I should maybe—maybe I shouldn’t—but Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, he used to play cricket for Sussex County Cricket Club, as well as for—being captain of Pakistan, and I played for the junior Sussex team. So he came and coached us. So I can kind of claim—he won’t remember me—to have sort of known him since the 1980s.
CHAUDHURY: I’m sure he does. I’m sure he remembers you. (Laughs.)
LUCE: I—no. I can’t help noticing that when he criticizes Macron’s France for putting in restrictions on French Muslims, or indeed the West in general, that he never mentions what’s happening in Xinjiang. He never mentions the Uighur people.
LUCE: And they’re next door. And it is by far the biggest and most egregious abuse against Muslims anywhere in the world—on a scale.
CHAUDHURY: Absolutely. It’s a huge problem.
LUCE: How does Pakistan—how does Pakistan civil society, media, independent society in Pakistan—independent of the military—how does it see that?
CHAUDHURY: Well, that’s—I think this is the—part of the deeper problem, which is the independence of the media and of the freedom within which the media and civil society have to critique such issues is shrinking. It’s shrinking at an exponential rate. And it has occurred in parallel to the entrée of CPEC into Pakistan. Pakistan has always had a very vibrant democratic culture. Its institutions of democracy have been flawed, but the culture has been very vibrant, very active. There’s been so much even cross border between Indian and Pakistani civil society historically.
So we’ve actually observed that there’s—I’ve observed a limited ability to be critical of such issues as Pakistan’s stance on the Uighurs, because of, you know, very deliberate kind of attempts by the state to control those political narratives. What will be very interesting to see is what comes of Pakistan’s, you know, leadership on the Palestinian cause and issue, which is not new for them. Like, they’ve talked about this issue. But they are going all out front and issued a resolution. And so there’s—you know, they’re putting themselves out there. They’re very exposed. And what that means is then they’re going to have to answer to why they’re not talking about the Uighurs even more so. So I’ll leave it at that.
LUCE: Well, that’s certainly an interesting answer. I think it’s going to be a live question for the foreseeable future.
Sumit, I wanted to ask you as sort of analog question, which is: You know, Modi’s been well-chronicled for the impact he’s had on India—Indian democracy, Indian civil society, internally. But in foreign policy terms not much different than Manmohan Singh. Not much different to a Congress-led government or any other of his predecessors. It’s been a fairly sort of moderate showing of the Indian face to the world. This fierce Hindu nationalist is actually—represents continuity when it comes to foreign policy. Is there a sort of hidden face of Hindu nationalist foreign policy we’ve yet to see?
GANGULY: We’ve seen already elements of it. There are certain straws in the wind. One is the much tougher attitude towards Pakistan. The carrying out of the surgical strike, whether—how it worked out is a completely different matter and a subject of debate. But it did happen. The calling off of the talks with Pakistan early in his administration, when Abdul Basit, the Pakistani high commissioner to New Delhi, had chosen to meet with the members of the Hurriyat, the—you know, the separatist parties from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Previous governments had grumbled about it, but ultimately had acquiesced in the meeting between the high commissioner and members of the Hurriyat. The Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh cancelled the talks. Obviously, she didn’t do this of her own accord. This must have come from on high. So on Pakistan, there has been not only a toughening of rhetoric, but actually in terms of actions there has been a toughening of the stance.
Secondly, the relationship with Israel has dramatically been boosted under Modi. Bear in mind that in 2017 he was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. And he has made no secret about his fondness for Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing. So in these two areas, we have seen not so subtle shifts. But generally, I tend to agree with you, because even with the PRC he had hoped that these informal summits, as you referred to them correctly, would sort of have an ameliorative effect on the Sino-Indian relationship. It ultimately did not, but this is something that Manmohan Singh had initiated, and he continued very much in that vein.
LUCE: And of course, he’s showing signs of becoming quite fond of Boris Johnson, if we’re talking about populists around the world.
Let me open this up to questions. So I misunderstood. I thought questions were going to be written. We’re having the operator call on questioners to ask them, which is the better way of doing it, in my view. So, Operator, could you—well, Sarah (sp), could you call on the first question.
OPERATOR: We will take the first question from Arvin Bahl.
Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I was curious, when you were talking about the Indian internal dynamics, do you think what’s happened with COVID will cause the opposition to be stronger? You know, 2024 is a long time away, but just wondering if the Congress Party gets its bearings back and there’s an opposition movement against Modi? And, you know, General Bajwa has talked about, you know, burying the hatchet with India. Is this a step change? I mean, I feel that every five years or so we hear the military saying this in Pakistan, but it doesn’t take much for things to go back to square one. So wondering if this is a paradigm shift, or it’s more the cycle we see every few years. Thank you.
LUCE: Those are two very good questions. Can I—I’ll get all three of you to answer, but can I start with Sumit on the Modi? Modi’s opinion poll ratings have plummeted to 65 percent, which gives you a sense of how dominant he is. Can his dominance be broken by this COVID disaster?
GANGULY: Certainly, some of the luster surrounding Modi has come off, particularly if you notice the results of the recent elections in four states and one union territory where the BJP came to power with only—in one state and one union territory, but only in the context of a coalition. In West Bengal, my home state, this is where I hail from, Modi was not routed, but he had attended something close to 110 rallies in the middle of the pandemic and had devoted massive amounts of resources to social media in an attempt to portray Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state, as inept, as being beholden to the Muslim minority, as weak on immigration and the like, and had pressed a number of hot-button issues. But despite that, he could not make headway in West Bengal.
So my hope is that regional political parties will emerge as a bulwark between now and 2024. Unfortunately, given the trends in Congress and the deep-seated culture of sycophancy that characterizes that party, and the complete lack of leadership that Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly demonstrated, I cannot see how miraculously the Congress in some phoenix-like fashion will resurrect itself by 2024. My hope really lies with the regional parties coming together and offering a solid bloc of opposition to Modi and his policies.
LUCE: Under Mamata Banerjee, maybe.
GANGULY: Yes. (Laughs.)
LUCE: Ambassador, you’d been there for four years until very recently. Now, I know you—diplomats don’t comment on internal—still less, speculate about internal political trends. But you’re no longer a diplomat, I note, and therefore you are liberated to answer this question. Could you see in any context Rahul Gandhi becoming prime minister of India?
JUSTER: I would step back for a second and say that on the national level Modi does not have any rival, and that includes Rahul Gandhi. And the—part of the challenge is that the opposition has really disappeared on the national level in India. They have not had a successful transition to the next generation of politicians. And Modi really, as shown by his two elections, has the only national figure in the country. And he has tremendous charisma. And he actually, if you look at it in the last year and a half—with the COVID situation, with the Chinese aggression on the northern border, and with the drastic contraction of the economy—Prime Minister Modi’s popularity rose.
But now this latest COVID problem has, as Sumit said, taken the luster off him to a certain degree. And you saw in the state elections that occurred the BJP especially put a lot of effort into West Bengal and did not win. And I think there are going to be challenges on the state level. But I’m not sure any of those state candidates, chief ministers, at this point has the ability to create a national movement that would unseat Prime Minister Modi. So I think on a national level he still has no one who’s equal. And I don’t see Rahul Gandhi rising to that level. But at the state level, you will see increasing discord. And the question is what the balance will be between the center and the state in terms of how policies are managed, which is the same type of debate we have in our country.
If I could also just make one other point, when you asked about the foreign policy. I mean, Modi has reached out to all countries in a broader way than India really has done in the past. And in Africa, in the region, all over. And really in an effort for India to be a pivotal player in a multipolar world, and tries to have good relations with the Israelis, but also the Palestinians. And you even saw when he was elected, he invited the Pakistani prime minister to come to his inauguration. He visited the prime minister on his birthday. And I really think the reaction in Pakistan is more one against terrorism and cross-border terrorism that’s occurring than is based on Hinduism versus Muslim views. And the Indians, in my view, would welcome some effort to have peace with Pakistan, but they are no longer going to put their faith in that. And they’ve hit back harder because they just don’t want to continue to take cross-border terrorist activities.
LUCE: And, Shamila, that sort of perfectly segues into the second question the questioner asked, which is about whether this is a breakable cycle between India and Pakistan? And the ambassador’s kind of put the onus there on Pakistan changing its character. And I presume by that, we mean military-dominated character.
CHAUDHURY: Yeah, it’s—I think this has always been a tough one to sort out, for many obvious reasons. But also because of who’s in charge of it on either side. Very different setups, right? There’s civilian—there’s civilian oversight of the military, of the defense system in India. And in Pakistan, in practice, it’s completely the opposite, right? And so the military really dominates all foreign policy issues. And this one is right at the top of the list. And to Arvin’s point, really good question about trends. I mean, historically we’ve—at the beginning of kind of a new administration in Pakistan, you’ll always see someone—you know, a leader coming out to say—the leader in power saying, like, I’d like to have peace and I’d like to start talks. But rarely is it backed by the military.
And I think in this case of Bajwa and Imran Khan, they’re on the same page and they’ve been fairly consistent about this public message, at least. And I think that they’re saying it because it’s good to say publicly because it makes them sound kind of diplomatic, and they know nothing is going to happen because Modi is fed up. And they also don’t want—I think they don’t want to have—I don’t think they want to escalate, honestly. At the same time, I don’t see them changing a lot of their policies which would be required to get India to come to the table. So nothing is really going to change, in my view.
Again, I’ve learned not to predict when it comes to India and Pakistan. But I will say this, on issuing public statements like General Bajwa did, if you’re going to issue anything it’s best for it to be as milquetoast as possible when it comes to India-Pakistan, because then it doesn’t make any of these leaders beholden to anything. Then private conversations, should they be happening, can actually move along. You only take it public if you’re not getting what you want. So, to me, this is not a bad thing.
JUSTER: Can I just add one thing? I’m not overly optimistic there’ll be, you know, further peace between India and Pakistan. But it’s actually a moment of great opportunity because India realizes that its major challenge is on its northern border with China and therefore would like to have a quiet border on the west with Pakistan. And the two actually did reach an agreement on trying to stop some of the cross-border terrorism. And we’ll have to see if it goes forward. But the Indians are incentivized to want to solve that problem as best they can to be able to focus their attention on China, because their greatest fear is having a two-front conflict with both the Chinese and the Pakistanis.
CHAUDHURY: I agree. I agree.
LUCE: OK. Well, those were great answers.
Sarah (sp), could we have the next question?
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Teresita Schaffer.
Q: Thank you, all. I’m Tezi Schaffer from McLarty Associates. Hello.
And I am curious as to what you think China was trying to accomplish with its operation in Galwan last summer. You hear a lot of different things—trying to create facts, trying basically to knock India off its stride and do a favor for Pakistan, and then various more speculative explanations. But what do you think the Chinese were up to? How do you think India now looks on it? And where do we go from here?
LUCE: Great question, and love to hear your voice, Tezi. Ambassador.
JUSTER: OK. Thank you. And good to—good to hear you as well, Tezi.
Well, on one level you saw the Indians developing further logistical support in this region of India, of that sort of disputed. Building roads in a way that the Chinese felt a bit threatened by. And so at the micro level, I think they wanted to stop the further construction of internal infrastructure by India in this region. The Chinese had already gone far in developing its own infrastructure, and so the Indians would say they were just responding to what the Chinese were doing. At the same time, this was in conjunction with China also flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, with Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and with Bhutan.
And so this was part of really China post the immediate outbreak of COVID, where they felt they had gotten a leg up on the rest of the world, flexing its muscles and trying to, in my view, indicate that it’s the main player in the region, and maybe demonstrate some dismay with India’s increasing closeness to the United States. If that was what they were doing—they’ve never made this explicit. They’ve never issued a clear statement of what their objective was. But if they were trying to tell the Indians, don’t get closer to the United States, it had just the opposite effect because it pushed the U.S. and India closer in terms of security coordination.
But in part the Xi administration has just shown an increasing willingness to act in a sort of aggressive and expansionist way. And it has affected everyone in the region and in the Indo-Pacific area more broadly. So there is both an immediate issue about logistical matters, but they did it in a way that was overkill. And they still have, even though they’ve disengaged, they haven’t really deescalated. And there’s still a lot of forces facing each other. And the biggest concern is that, as much as neither country wants to have a real conflict—and they were really shocked when there was the first killings of people in June of last year for the first time in forty-five years—when you have that many people that close by and they’re young and adrenaline’s flowing, conflicts can happen. And these are between two nuclear-powered states. So it’s a situation that really requires continued vigilance to watch and is of grave concern.
LUCE: Sumit, do you want to give a quick answer to that? Do you agree with the ambassador? Because I’m aware there are several questions in the queue.
GANGULY: I wholeheartedly agree with the ambassador’s analysis, both the points that he made. The only thing I would probably emphasize a bit more is that it was a clear message to India not to get to close to the United States, but the results have been precisely the opposite of what the Chinese intended.
LUCE: Sarah (sp), do you have the next question?
OPERATOR: Yes. We will take the next question from Razi Hashmi.
Q: Thank you so much, Sarah (sp), Shamila, Samit, and Ambassador Juster. It’s been a while since I had the opportunity to attend a CFR event with people I’ve worked with closely over the years, and so really appreciate your work. South Asia doesn’t usually get the attention it deserves, and I really appreciate everything that you’re doing.
My question is on technology and human rights. We’ve seen an increase in the rise of religious freedom violations across South Asia—everything from WhatsApp trolls, you know, attacking Christians and Muslims in India, through cow vigilante violence, to the abuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan that attack Ahmadi Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and others. You know, what have you seen kind of in your roles, and kind of especially now that some of you are no longer in government, what are your recommendations for policymakers on engaging this space, especially since we have faced a similar incident of misinformation and disinformation with the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6th? Thank you.
LUCE: Shamila, could I ask you to take that?
CHAUDHURY: Sure. Well, unfortunately—well, it’s good to hear your voice, Razi. Thank you for everything you do as well.
Unfortunately, I think that the—you know, all of these moments in which technology is allowing human rights to be—abuses to be exposed, it’s happening at a time when there’s also greater authoritarianism around the world, right? We’ve talked about this. And I think that states are going to actually veer more towards authoritarian tendencies when they see that they’re not able to control certain narratives. I mean, this is—in some ways, it’s just uncontrollable, unless you want to shut down Twitter, for example, or your block YouTube. And then you have to deal with all of those different kinds of consequences. What I would say is—and there are many other people who study this far more than I do.
But I would say in this case the United States should think about supporting civil society actors in those countries. I mean, this is where your money can actually do you a lot of good if it’s sustained, right? And so working on all of the issues associated with the democracy promotion agenda. And we’ve tried this. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. Hopefully we learned the lessons. But I think there’s a space there to be filled. It’s not going to be easy. It’ll be very contentious to do this while we have these bilateral relationships also that are important to us. But that’s where I see just a little bit of opportunity.
LUCE: And that was a very large, important, and open-ended question. But I’m sort of aware of the time here and the fact that there are other questions. And maybe some of them will overlap with that. So could we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: Sure. We will take the next question from Mansoor Shams.
Q: Hi. Founder of MuslimMarine.org. I was born in Pakistan, so this question likely will go towards Shamila.
I just want to come back to the—you know, to the Uighur question. It’s clear that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s stance has been silent. But how does the Pakistani society reconcile with this issue? Where do they stand? And internally, as Razi already mentioned, there’s the Ahmadi minority issue and there’s other religious minorities, and there’s big talk of human rights. But how does Prime Minister Imran Khan or Pakistan expect to be taken seriously on the world stage when its violating human rights at home?
CHAUDHURY: Well, it’s good to see you virtually, Mansoor.
You know, I think part of the problem here is that there are so many issues to talk about at home in Pakistan when it comes to social injustice and human rights that it’s going to be hard to kind of go to this more traditional narrative of, like, being considerate and mindful of the Muslim ummah, right? This is all—Uighurs and everything—Kashmir—everything is happening while Pakistan itself is going through a lot of challenges when it comes to its minorities. So I think you kind of answered your own question there, that—I don’t have a lot of conversations with Pakistani civil society about the Uighurs. I have plenty of them about, you know Ahmadi Muslims, and treatment of women, and gender rights, et cetera.
LUCE: I think we’ve probably only got time for one more question. Sarah (sp), could—
OPERATOR: OK. We will take the last question from Hani Findakly.
Q: Thank you very much. Thank you for this excellent discussion.
I’m an economist. And I look at the economic component of this. And I hear China and India being discussed in the same vein. And I see huge differences. They were both about the same about forty years ago, and China now is about five to six times the size of India, both in terms of income and economic output. The biggest difference between China and India today is a structural one. About 47 percent of the entire population of India is engaged in agriculture but produces only 50 percent of the—of GDP. And the only way China—India could catch up anyway with China in the next thirty to fifty years it’s to move, the way China did, a large portion of its population into higher productive activities. Either moving them to big cities, like China did, or move jobs to them. The question is, is it politically and socially feasible for India to do this, and to move into the upper ranks of the global economy?
LUCE: So I think if both Sumit and the ambassador could give fairly abbreviated answers to this very important question, that would be—that would be great. Bearing in mind we’ve got two minutes left.
GANGULY: India faces certain kinds of structural bottlenecks that it created of its own accord, and which Ed has actually written about in an earlier incarnation. And those bottlenecks are not easy to break. For example, the so-called small sector reservation that exists in India, which prevents you from expanding capacity and thereby getting economies of scale. Now, because of path dependence it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for India to do this overnight. It has tried to chip away at it, but it will require a national consensus and a more frontal assault on these matters so that you can build large-scale factories which can absorb huge amounts of labor from the rural areas into major urban centers and give them productive jobs. This is not an easy task, and I don’t see this being accomplished anytime soon.
JUSTER: If I can build on what Sumit said, and I agree, with an added additional dimension. A lot of companies around the world that have invested in China are now somewhat disenchanted and are looking to move elsewhere in Asia. And this is a huge opportunity for India, and for India to build up its manufacturing capacity and to attract investment. My concern is, to do so you really have to open your economy and India seems to be moving in a direction that has been, in the last few years, closing the economy. And they need to really decide, what is their position on international trade? They withdrew from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that China was a member of, but they haven’t yet really engaged in meaningful free trade discussions with the United States, the U.K., the European Union.
And so for India to make the transformation that Sumit said, and to really grow, in my opinion, economically, it has to open up, because it’s in its own interest. Its own history shows the benefits of opening up. The region of Asia shows the benefits of opening up. And China had its greatest growth when it opened up and attracted investment. So that, to me, is one of the great challenges ahead for India, as it tries to learn the lessons of the COVID pandemic and transform its economy and recover from the economic devastation of that pandemic.
LUCE: A hugely important set of challenges, and I guess a fairly appropriate note on which to end this fascinating and very important discussion.