NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a rather bland interview with the Time magazine, where the questions were broad and easy providing a platform for him to speak without counter questions, claimed that India and the US “are natural allies.” And suggested that the two are equal partners as, “the way we should look at it is what India and the U.S can together do for the world….strengthening democratic values all over the world.”

But it is for these ‘democratic values’ that PM Modi wants to cooperate with the U.S, that he and his government are receiving flak from Washington from the highest echelons of government. Starting from U.S President Barack Obama during his visit to India, running through the State Department, and now from the US envoy in New Delhi as well the Modi government is being hit hard on its violation of democratic values that the Prime Minister now says that the two countries should work together to strengthen “all over the world.”

The Time magazine interview is clearly what in journalistic parlance here is called a “puff job” with the interviewer barely touching on controversial issues, preferring broad sweeps to specifics.The American magazine thus provided a platform for the Prime Minister to spell out his views, without fear of counter on any issue, in particular the democratic values being adhered to---or violated---within India. The US State Department, however, has shown no such reticence with the issues of minority rights and civil rights---both core to democracy---being raised by President Obama, and subsequently by the US State Department.

US Ambassador to India Richard Verma, most recently, used a public function in New Delhi to follow up on the State Department’s apprehensions about the government’s decision here to put the international donor agency, Ford Foundation, on a watch-list. And its action freezing the bank accounts of Greenpeace, a reputed organisation working on environment. The ambassador followed up on the State Departments fears that this kind of governmental action against such organisations would “limit necessary and critical debate.”

The US envoy made it clear in no uncertain terms that debate was central to democracies. “We cannot avoid discussions simply because we might not like the answers", he said in perhaps the most critical remarks in years of India, provoked by the government’s decision to crack down on non-governmental organisations. Verma recalled Gandhi, Martin Luther King and BR Ambedkar to say that this kind of action could have a “chilling” effect on freedom of speech and expression, both essential to democracy.

"Those that act peacefully to seek change are not anti-government. They are for better government, and by seeking to improve the government they strengthen national security, not weaken it," the envoy said.

It is common perception that the government had acted against the Ford Foundation that has funded prestigious institutions across the country, because of its links with Sabrang Communications and Citizens for Justice and Peace---both working to bring justice to the victims of the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Greenpeace that is not allowed to access its own funds now by the government is on the verge of closure in India. Over 10,000 non-governmental organisations have lost their licenses under the Modi government. Reports that action was also being contemplated against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have appeared in the media, although officials from the Home Ministry have also been quoted subsequently as denying it.

The US and India seem to be on the same page insofar as stepping up investments, trade and business is concerned. The difference, however, is stark on democratic values with President Obama using the last day of his visit to India to stress on gender justice, and religious tolerance with full respect for diversity within. He went on to say, “ India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith -- so long as it's not splintered along any lines -- and is unified as one nation.”

President Obama followed up on this in Washington where he told the National Breakfast Prayer meeting he was hosting in February, “Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, that is by no means a private body and actually carries considerable weightage with the U.S. government and Congressmen has come out with a scathing report on India (

Clearly Washington and New Delhi are on not on the same page insofar on democratic values. And perhaps the New York Times in an editorial today summed up the American response best when it wrote: “The Ford Foundation is among the world’s best-known charitable organizations, dispensing billions of dollars globally for projects aimed at reducing poverty, fighting injustice, improving education and advancing democracy.

So it was alarming when India’s Ministry of Home Affairs last month placed the foundation, which has made $500 million in grants to organizations in India since 1952, on a national security watch list. That means it cannot give money to Indian groups without permission from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The move shook the donor community and triggered fears of a broader crackdown on civic activism — fears quickly realized when the government canceled the registration of nearly 9,000 foreign-funded civic and nongovernmental groups.

The Ford case smacks of political payback. The listing stems from a complaint by the Gujurat State government about the Sabrang Trust, a private group that has received grants from Ford. The trust, its founder, Teesta Setalvad, and her husband have worked on behalf of victims of sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002, when Mr. Modi was chief minister. They have also sought to bring charges against Mr. Modi for enabling the violence, which left more than 1,000 people dead.

The state asked the ministry to investigate the trust for “disturbing the communal harmony here and carrying out anti-national propaganda against India in foreign countries.” The state had previously accused Ms. Setalvad and her husband of embezzling funds meant for a museum to honor the riot victims. Their advocates say they are victims of a political vendetta. One Indian official has described Ford and Greenpeace, which is now facing closure in India, as “agents of Western strategic interests.” Although democratic India is a far cry from Russia, China and Egypt, similarly chilling talk was heard when authoritarian leaders in those countries moved to crush civic activism.

Mr. Modi has an ambitious agenda to lift millions of people out of poverty and play a bigger role on the world stage. He almost certainly cannot attract the investment he needs while imposing a repressive social order and devaluing India’s greatest asset, a robust democracy.”