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Kamala Harris gently presses Indian PM Narendra Modi on human rights during US meeting

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Vice-President Kamala Harris speak to members of the media before their meeting in Washington on September 23. Photo: EPA-EFE

US Vice-President Kamala Harris invoked her familial ties to India as she gently pressed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on human rights during a history-making meeting on Thursday between America’s first vice-president of Indian descent and the leader of a country that has become an increasingly close ally.

Harris, during public remarks at her ceremonial office before the closed-door session, told Modi that as democracies around the world are under threat “it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries”.

“I know from personal experience and from my family of the commitment of the Indian people to democracy,” she said, “and the work that needs to be done [so that] we can begin to imagine, and then actually achieve, our vision for democratic principles and institutions.”

The remarks marked a subtle change from the Trump administration’s unquestioned fidelity to the populist Modi, who has presided over an increase in religious polarisation in his country, with more laws targeting religious minorities, including its large Muslim population, as well as attacks on non-Hindus.

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Vice-President Kamala Harris are pictured on the balcony of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. Photo: Reuters

Despite the mild pressure, the two leaders shared warm words, including praise from Harris for India’s role in producing Covid-19 vaccines for the world. Modi thanked Harris for offering a “sense of kinship” in a phone call during his country’s deadly coronavirus surge this spring, calling her a “real friend”.

“The oldest democracy and the largest democracy … we are indeed natural partners, we have similar values,” Modi said.

He invited Harris to visit his country, telling her that Indians “are waiting to welcome you” and calling her “the source of inspiration for so many people across the world”. Harris, who visited Southeast Asia last month, did not immediately commit to a trip.

Harris stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific at a time when the United States is trying to solidify its pivot toward Asia and strengthen ties with allies to take on China’s growing military and financial influence in the region.

“The United States, like India, feels very strongly about the pride of being a member of the Indo-Pacific, but also the fragility and importance … of those relationships, including maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Harris told Modi during the meeting.

The public discussion of about 15 minutes attracted more attention, including a large press contingent from India, than typical meetings between heads of state and vice-presidents. Harris’ mother was born in India, and Indian Americans are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, with a population of more than 4 million.

Indian PM Narendra Modi speaks to US Vice-President Kamala Harris ahead of their meeting. Photo: EPA-EFE

Modi did not speak publicly about his desire to increase US work visas for Indians, but it is part of his agenda. Harris and Modi also talked about their goals to combat Covid-19 and climate change, and to strengthen the strategic alliance.

Modi is expected to meet with President Joe Biden on Friday and then separately again with Harris and Biden in meetings of the so-called Quad, which also includes Japan and Australia.

Modi on Thursday also met the chief executives of Qualcomm, Blackstone, Adobe, First Solar and General Atomics, sources said.

Modi, former chief minister of Gujarat before his 2014 national election win, was banned from travelling to the United States for a nearly a decade, following the massacre of 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state in 2002.

Additional reporting by Reuters