Modi wants Indian citizens to believe he will not brook western interference in domestic affairs. India's extensive lobbying efforts in Washington suggest a different reality
"My reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York,” India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, declared in 2019, referring to foreign press criticism about the revoking of article 370 which nullified Kashmir’s autonomous status.
Jaishankar has repeatedly accused the US media of being biased and ideological on Kashmir and defended the move as India’s internal business. Jaishankar belongs to the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which forms the national government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This week, Modi is in Washington for a historic state visit.
While his government publicly and robustly rebuffs American criticism of its domestic matters, behind the scenes it has been lobbying hard through the Indian embassy in Washington to present its version of events to US policy-makers.
In May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government body, recommended for the fourth time that India be designated by the US State Department as a "country of particular concern", citing systematic violations of the right to freedom of religion. The Indian government rejected the USCIRF charges as motivated and biased.
The BJP’s blunt responses to international criticism on Kashmir and India’s increasingly problematic human rights record have resonated with large sections of the party's right-wing nationalist voter base.
But tough postures aside, how India is perceived among US policymakers and media matters greatly to the Modi government, much as it mattered to preceding Indian governments. This is because the US has emerged as one of India’s most important bilateral partners, seen in steadily increasing trade ties and a burgeoning defence partnership.
The Indian diaspora in the US is 4.9 million strong and influential in American politics. Therefore, when US congresspersons wade into domestic Indian issues, it is with an eye on Indian diaspora voters.