Trump, Biden and India
C. RAJA MOHAN
THE extraordinary interest in India and South Asia in the 2020 US elections is rooted in developments that go well beyond the nomination of Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee, the first person of colour to get that honour. That the vice president elect is of Indian origin has been a source of great satisfaction for Indians. Given President elect Joe Biden’s age, Harris could, in theory, become the first woman president of the United States.
Beyond Kamala Harris, the growing political significance of the Indian diaspora was reflected in the intense wooing of the community by both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. While the diaspora in the US stands at 4.5 million, the voters are said to be around two million with a significant concentration in the battleground states that were critical in defining the final outcome. That the Indian diaspora is rich also makes them an important object of interest to both the parties.
Equally important perhaps is the growing participation of the Indian diaspora in US political processes. In the 2020 elections, a record 20 Indian Americans were elected to various state legislatures. More and more Indian professionals join political campaigns, take up staff positions with Senators and Congressmen, and the numbers of Indian Americans appointed to different positions in successive administrations has steadily grown in recent years. Beyond the political appointees, a large number of Indian Americans join the US civil services at the federal and state levels.
The growing political value of the Indian diaspora for the US political class was reflected sharply in two important developments. One was President Donald Trump’s decision to invite himself to the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters in the Indian diaspora organized in Houston in 2019 fall.
Even more interesting was President Trump’s decision to travel all the way to India for a short visit in February 2020 amidst the unfolding Covid pandemic. The US president attended a large rally with Modi near Ahmedabad but had few major agreements to sign in Delhi. The sotto voce among the cognoscenti was that Trump was willing to temper his fiery demands on trade and was eager to demonstrate his closeness to India and Modi for the Indian diaspora in the United States.
The Democratic Party too spared no effort to reach out to the Indian diaspora and was more than eager to hold onto the large traditional support base in the Indian American community. Given the tightness of the final contest in November, it is possible that the US political class on both sides of the divide were convinced of the importance of their special effort to win the Indian diaspora. The bipartisan wooing of the Indian diaspora in the swing states is likely to be a regular feature in the near future.
The 2020 elections signalled the new political will in Delhi to leverage the possibilities arising from the new weight of the Indian diaspora. The flipside of this was the danger of the Modi government coming quite close to taking sides in the US elections. The presumed special relationship between Modi and Trump if not the bilateral relationship itself, got entangled in the deep polarization of politics in both countries. The problem started with Modi proclaiming in the Houston rally the catchy slogan of ‘Ab ki Baar, Trump Sarkar’. The foreign office, which understood the dangers of being seen as interfering in the US elections, was quick to downplay the comment. And as the race unfolded in 2020, the BJP had to rein in its supporters in the US from taking sides in the elections.
Delhi had reasons to take pride in managing the complex relationship with the Trump presidency a lot better than many of America’s traditional partners. For any damage during the Trump years would have been hard to set right subsequently. Modi’s bromance with Trump inevitably got some negative comments from a section of the Democrats locked in a civil war with the president. Far more consequential was the sharp liberal criticism in the US of Modi’s political moves on changing the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in the first months of the PM’s second term.
American murmurs in Modi’s first term about the BJP government’s Hindu nationalist excesses, the intolerance of minorities and Islamophobia have become solid convictions about India becoming an illiberal democracy. Modi is also branded by the Liberal Democrats as part of the ‘autocratic set’ that Trump had cultivated in abandoning the traditional foreign policy objective of promoting democracy and human rights in the world. There is no doubt that the loss of support for Delhi among liberal sections of the US polity is real. How much of that will translate into policy remains to be seen.
The American criticisms of Modi’s domestic policies were largely an amplification of the criticism by the liberal opposition to the BJP within India. Beyond the domestic issues, Modi’s vigorous pursuit of stronger ties with the US under both the Obama and Trump Administrations had also been criticized by foreign policy traditionalists in Delhi calling for an adherence to non-alignment and strategic autonomy. But the more intensive pace of the partnership in Trump’s last two years has sharpened that criticism. It was unsurprising, therefore, that Trump’s defeat has been viewed by many in India as a major setback personally to Modi and generally to Indian foreign policy.
To make it even more interesting, there was much speculation that Biden might be nursing a grievance against Modi, because the Indian PM was buttering up Trump at the ‘Howdy Modi’ Houston rally. But Biden has far too much on his plate to waste time plotting on how to get even with Modi for his productive engagement with Trump. But these arguments in Delhi tell us more about the divisions within India and how they colour Indian judgements of other societies.
Some in India hope, and others fear, that the US Congress has the interest or power to set right India’s internal problems. Those who are hopeful or anxious about critical comments from a section of the Democratic Party’s legislators about Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act tend to over determine the weight of these concerns in the conduct of US foreign policy towards India.
The new president and the Congress take charge at a time when the US confronts multiple crises, including the pandemic that has devasted the US people and economy and the protests against systemic racism that rocked America in the summer, to focus on putting Modi in the dock. Even if Biden places human rights issues at the top of his foreign policy agenda, it might be unrealistic to argue that India would be at the top of those concerns. There are much bigger human rights challenges that the US confronts around the world. While some in the Congress – the House of Representatives has 435 members and the Senate 100 – focus on human rights and religious freedom, there are others who want to open India’s market and deepen greater bilateral defence cooperation. The US Congress is a vibrant legislature where all kinds of interests and ideas find vigorous articulation.
The Congress is an important part of the US government, but only some of the ideas debated there translate into Washington’s policies. The last two decades have seen strong support from the US Congress to the Executive on strengthening all-round cooperation with India. There is no reason to see that changing under the next president and the Congress, if Delhi stays engaged with both. It is important to note that the US is a country and not a cause. To be sure, promoting democracy and human rights has long been part of its foreign policy ideology. American political leaders, like their counterparts elsewhere, highlight these ideological issues during the elections, often to appeal to specific constituencies. Once in power, it is more likely that they will put US interests above ideology and values.
While enduring national interests drive American foreign policy towards India, personal and subjective factors are quite important in the routine conduct of international relations. If personnel are policy, Delhi starts out on a good footing with President Biden. Biden, himself, it might be recalled actively supported the controversial India-US nuclear deal during 2005-08, when he was a ranking senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As vice president during the Obama Administration, Biden is all too familiar with the substantive progress made in the relations between India and the United States. Modi himself recalled the productive past association in the congratulatory message to the president elect. And in the brief telephone conversation between the two leaders, Biden did refer to promoting democracy ‘at home and abroad’ but also noted a number of other priorities, including addressing the challenges posed by Covid-19 and climate change as well as strengthening economic security and stabilizing the Indo-Pacific.
If Biden and Modi appear to have got off to a good start, Delhi is pleased to see many familiar faces in the Biden national security team. Antony Blinken, nominated as the Secretary of State, served as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. Jake Sullivan, the new national security adviser was a close aide to Biden as well as Hillary Clinton in the Obama Administration.
India’s relations with the US have been on a continuous upward trajectory under four very different presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It would be reasonable to assume that progress along that direction will continue. The opportunities and problems that India confronted with each of them were different. But there has been enough convergence of interests and enough political commitment to limit the difficulties and advance cooperation. Under Biden too there will be fresh opportunities as well as problems.
On the positive side, Biden’s embrace of the concept of Indo-Pacific initiated under President Trump is a welcome sign. Although it was President Obama who articulated the notion of a ‘Pivot to Asia’ and the importance of India in that strategy, it is the Trump Administration that concretized those thoughts in the Indo-Pacific strategy. While the UPA government was reluctant to work with the US for Asian security, Modi has not been inhibited. Modi intensified defence cooperation with the US by signing the so-called foundational agreements. Modi also revived the so-called Quad – or the Quadrilateral cooperation between India, US, Japan and Australia – that was put in cold storage by the UPA government.
Delhi had reasons to appreciate the positions taken by the Trump Administration during the Pulwama and Balakot crises during early 2019. The Trump Administration defended India’s right to self-defence against terrorism and compelled Pakistan to release the Indian Air Force fighter pilot, Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman, who bailed out in Pakistan after an air skirmish with the Pakistan Air Force. The Trump Administration also prevented China from raising, at Pakistan’s behest, the Modi government’s constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir at the UNSC.
Washington offered strong political support to Delhi in the wake of the Chinese aggression in Ladakh in the summer of 2020 and responded positively to the specific Indian requests for military assistance. America’s supportive stance on India’s long-standing conflicts with Pakistan and China have profoundly altered the political template of India-US relations and created the basis for India’s unprecedented openness to stronger security ties with the United States. India’s willingness to join the Quad foreign ministers meeting in Tokyo and host the Two Plus Two bilateral dialogue of defence and foreign ministers in Delhi just a few weeks before the US elections, marked a new political will in both capitals to consolidate the progress made in strategic ties in the Trump years.
Future historians looking at the last four years might conclude that the formalization of a new strategic geography, the Indo-Pacific, as well as the revival of the Quad as part of elevating the security engagement with Delhi, are among the few lasting legacies of Trump’s term at the White House. The intensified security cooperation, which has strong buy-in from the Pentagon, is likely to be an important stabilizing factor in India-US relations during the Biden presidency.
But there are potentially other factors that create some uncertainty. One is Pakistan. Delhi would like Biden to persist with the tilt towards India in its disputes with Pakistan that was evident during the Trump years. Pakistan is hoping to change that. Pakistan has long been a major partner for the United States in the region and is formally designated as a major non-NATO ally. Pakistan remains important as the Trump Administration is focused on withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Afghanistan has been the dominant prism through which the US approached the region. South Asia was the first region that the Trump White House devoted serious political attention to. In August 2017, he unveiled a South Asia policy, which in essence was about Afghanistan. It was about the US giving one more military shot at stabilizing Afghanistan and mounting some pressure on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Unlike the US military establishment, Trump has been eager to leave Afghanistan at the earliest. He wanted to redeem the promise to his supporters to end America’s ‘endless wars’. It is an idea that has much resonance among the progressives of the Democratic Party.
There is no expectation that a Biden administration wants to beef up the US military presence in Afghanistan, after nearly two decades of occupation. Die-hard internationalists in the Biden establishment might agree with Trump’s former National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster that the White House is trying to appease the Taliban. But few are willing to put their political capital now to save Afghanistan. If the Biden Administration continues to shed the burden of securing Afghanistan, the importance of Pakistan for Washington could arguably decline. Pakistan also has the challenge of reconciling its deepening ties with China with the sharpening conflict between Washington and Beijing.
As the US focus shifts from counter-terror campaigns and land wars of the last two decades to a maritime contestation with China, the American attention has begun to move away from Pakistan to building a strong partnership with India and renewing ties to the smaller states of the region. Pakistan’s value for the US might become less salient. Over the last few years, the China challenge has emerged as the principal international focus for the US foreign policy establishment and Trump has presided over that definitive transition. For the Biden Administration too, China is likely to be the topmost priority; but the way it might approach the issues involved are likely to be somewhat different from those of Trump and will have a bearing on the Biden Administration’s approach to India and South Asia.
The Democrats insist that they have no desire to pursue a new cold war with China. Biden says China is not a threat but a competition that can and must be beaten. Unlike Trump, Biden promises to bring the allies together in developing a common strategy to deal with Beijing. Some in Delhi, as probably in Tokyo and Canberra, worry that Biden might simply go back to the policies of the Obama Administration that emphasized engagement with China at the cost of condoning its regional aggression. But others in India bet that the security and political establishment in Washington has moved decisively towards a strategy of standing up to China’s assertiveness and that it is unlikely to change significantly when Biden takes charge.
On the question of trade and economic security there might be a measure of continuity between Trump and Biden. Given the pressures on the Democratic Party to accommodate the progressives and trade unions, Biden has said there will be no signing of new free trade agreements without a political consideration to the interests of American workers. India, which has trade issues with most of its partners, will find the going as tough with the Biden administration as with Trump. But there are two other issues on which Biden is likely make a significant departure from Trump. One is the Russia policy. In the last four years, the Democrats have accused Trump of being soft on Russia and have promised a tougher policy towards Moscow. That is likely to make it more difficult for India to balance its relations with the US and Russia and will demand considerable diplomatic skill on the part of Delhi.
One of the major differences between Trump and Biden is on climate change. Biden has listed climate change as one of his urgent priorities and promised to put the full weight of the US government behind new initiatives on the issue. Delhi, of course, is bound to welcome the US return to the 2015 Paris accord on climate change. But it is not clear if Delhi is ready to engage with the Biden Administration’s ‘climate hawks’ who are dead set against the use of coal, which remains a major source of electric power generation in the subcontinent. India’s own approach to climate change has evolved in a positive direction under Modi. The Biden team recognizes the importance of having India on-board in arriving at any sustainable global agreement on mitigating climate change. That should open up some space for serious bilateral engagement.
In conclusion, it would be reasonable to argue that the tone and substance of India-US engagement will see some changes under Biden. This is but natural, given the internal political change in the US and the deepening turbulence in global affairs. But Delhi and Washington are in a much better position to deal with these changes today. In the 20th century, the absence of commercial ties, the negative impact of great power politics, and the deep political suspicion of America within the Indian political class constrained the bilateral relationship. The 21st century has seen steady expansion of the bilateral engagement in all domains – commercial, political and strategic. And the relative weight of India for US foreign policy has grown considerably. So has the political weight of the Indian diaspora in America.