By Michael Kugelman
On December 9, when the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) issued an extraordinary statement on Twitter: “Religious pluralism is central to the foundations of both India and the United States and is one of our core shared values. Any religious test for citizenship undermines this most basic democratic tenet. #CABBill.” This statement says much about shifting perceptions on Capitol Hill about India and the U.S.-India relationship. It comes on the heels of sharp Congressional criticism of India, much of it leveled by Democrats, and mainly focused on New Delhi actions in Jammu and Kashmir.
A significant statement
However, the HFAC tweet is particularly significant. First, it was issued by a Congressional committee — in this case, a key bipartisan body involved with legislation on international affairs. This was not a case of a sole elected official levying criticism. It was a tweet that required some level of informal consensus from the committee in order to be posted. In other words, it reflected the views of a critical mass of elected officials focused on foreign affairs.
Second, the statement targeted a piece of legislation in India that hasn’t even been signed into law. This was not a case of the HFAC railing against a newly enshrined law, much less an implemented policy. In other words, the committee was delivering a pre-emptive salvo against a Bill that has quite some time to go before it becomes the law of the land in India. Such criticism, at this relatively early moment in the legislation’s life, is quite unusual, and a reflection of the deep concern harboured by Capitol Hill about the Bill.
Third, the HFAC statement invoked the U.S.-India relationship. It underscored the shared values that underpin the partnership, before suggesting that the Bill undermines those very values. Indeed, the two democracies have both seen considerable democratic backsliding, including on religious pluralism, over the last few years. The HFAC statement is a reminder that one of the core pillars, shared values, of U.S.-India partnership is taking a major hit. Shared interests more than shared values are increasingly what drive the relationship today. Recent messaging from both capitals, which has emphasised the former more than the latter, makes that quite clear.
To be sure, we shouldn’t overstate the significance of the HFAC’s tweet. Congress doesn’t drive or determine policy towards India — a useful reminder when considering the intensifying drumbeat of Congressional criticism (ranging from hearings to a recently introduced bipartisan resolution) of India’s actions in J&K. Still, make no mistake: A bipartisan Congressional committee has called out a piece of Indian legislation and highlighted the potential damage it could inflict on the U.S.-India relationship. And such criticism has emerged from one of the most pro-India political places in Washington.
Consider as well another American government critic of the Citizenship Bill — the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). On December 9, USCIRF released a missive decrying the legislation and calling on the U.S. government to “consider sanctions” against Home Minister Amit Shah and “other principal leadership” if the Bill passes in both legislative chambers. USCIRF too doesn’t set U.S. policy on India. Still, it’s quite striking to hear an organ of Washington officialdom speaking of sanctioning Indian officials five years after the Obama administration ended its visa ban on Narendra Modi.
This isn’t to say that the bilateral relationship is about to take a major plunge. Indeed, the State Department, the Defence Department and the White House remain firmly on board with U.S.-India strategic partnership. Still, at least in some quarters, Washington’s love affair with Modi’s India has hit a rough patch.
Michael Kugelman is Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, DC. (The Hindu)