Biden’s inability to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations not connected to Pannun assassination plot 

By Mayank Chhaya –

As tempting as it is to believe, there appears to be no recognizable connection between President Joe Biden’s inability to attend the Republic Day celebrations in India on January 26, 2024, and the tensions between Washington and New Delhi over the stunning allegations of India’s involvement in the plot to assassinate Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

While the damning indictment of the alleged underworld figure Nikhil Gupta for plotting to kill Pannun at the behest of an unnamed Indian intelligence official remains a deeply troublesome aspect between the two countries, it has not led to any perceptible scaling down of bilateral relations.

However, there seems to have been subtle hints from the Biden administration to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to offer a public response to the allegations at his level. In a rare move, the prime minister granted the Financial Times of London an interview in this specific context. The paper has done some remarkable reporting on that front.

Modi told the newspaper he will “look into” any evidence even as he insisted that a “few incidents” would not affect US-India relations.

“If someone gives us any information, we would definitely look into it,” Modi said. “If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it. Our commitment is to the rule of law.”

It was a remarkably anodyne response to what has been viewed as potentially the most damaging allegations. Modi said he was “deeply concerned about the activities of certain extremist groups based overseas. These elements, under the guise of freedom of expression, have engaged in intimidation and incited violence.”

The way Modi has framed it by saying, “If someone gives us any information” is rather odd considering Washington has given unambiguous information to New Delhi at the highest level even while enlisting very specific charges in the indictment of Gupta. The U.S. case against Gupta is unprecedented in the way it unambiguously accuses India of sanctioning a plot to kill a U.S. citizen, which Pannun is, on U.S. soil.

After some initial shock and outrage in the immediate aftermath of the disclosure of the details in the Gupta indictment, the tensions between the two sides have clearly simmered down with indications from Washington that the Biden administration may not be inclined to let the assassination plot mar the otherwise robust US-India relations.

Modi told the Financial Times, “Security and counter-terrorism cooperation has been a key component of our partnership. I don’t think it is appropriate to link a few incidents with diplomatic relations between the two countries.”

It is obvious that behind the scenes, the prime minister is acutely aware that the U.S. president is in no position to take any precipitate steps against India at a time when he is himself embattled on several domestic and international fronts. Apart from the threat of his impeachment by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Biden is up against desperately low popularity numbers, a probable defeat in the matchup with former President Donald Trump, the badly executed Israel-Hamas war, the dragging Russia-Ukraine war with U.S. Congress not releasing more funds in aid of Kyiv, and popular disquiet against the U.S. economy despite its inherent solidity. On top of all that he has to also focus on his last State of the Union address before the presidential election next year.

Beyond that, the Biden administration has chosen to treat India as its most important democratic ally as Washington comes into conflict with China on several fronts globally. The Pannun plot is not even remotely so consequential for Washington as to forsake its much larger global strategy for the next two to three decades.

With those many fires to fight, it is inopportune for Biden to travel to New Delhi as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. It is understood that top Biden administration officials have assured their Indian counterparts privately that the president skipping the Republic Day events has nothing to do with the Pannun-Gupta affair. However, peripherally it is certainly a factor and is expected to remain so for some time.

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