The present US elections come at a time when we are being mercilessly ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, our economy is on the downswing and China is behaving aggressively at the border.
Other portends are equally discouraging; our neighbours including our all-weather friend Russia are firmly in the Chinese embrace, even Nepal is thumbing its nose at us.
The nonaligned movement, so carefully nurtured by us, is moribund. Regional alliances promoted by us, like SAARC, are riven by differences. US support is vital for us in our confrontation with China; the moot question is: “To what extent would the next President of the US support us against China?” The Chinese imbroglio has pushed contentious bilateral issues like the increasing difficulty in getting H1-B visas to the background.
Biden has promised a softening of the visa regime but he and his part-Indian running mate Kamala Harris are not sure of Indian votes only because of the portrayal of Biden and Harris as closet Chinese sympathisers, by Trump supporters. Ignoring election-inspired controversies, Indo-US relations have had a complicated history. The flag of the East India Company inspired the design of the US Flag.
Somewhat contrarily, at the time of our freedom struggle, Indian intellectuals and revolutionaries found refuge in the USA. President Franklin D Roosevelt was a whole-hearted votary of Indian freedom; during World War II, Roosevelt proposed that Britain should grant independence to India. Roosevelt stepped back only when Churchill threatened to resign.
In the early years of our Independence, the US supported India with food and money, but we resisted an unequal relationship with the US, preferring to remain non-aligned. Indo-US relations touched rock bottom when Indira Gandhi faced the hostile duo of Nixon and Kissinger and worsened (if that was possible) in the aftermath of the Indo-Pak war of 1971. After the liberalisation of 1991, our ties with the US, have improved steadily, except for a short period after our nuclear test in 1998.
People to people contact with the USA has increased exponentially in recent years; the Indian diaspora in the US that numbered less than 400,000 in 1980 and less than 1.7 million in 2010, is now touching 5 million.
Qualitatively also, Indians have done well in the US; Indians have the highest median income amongst all ethnic groups and leading US technology companies like Microsoft, Google and Adobe have Indian-origin CEOs.
The vibes between our national leaders are quite strong, PM Modi prides himself on his personal equation with President Trump and viceversa; both Trump and Modi have organised mega-events for each other.
Indeed, some opposition to the candidature of BidenHarris duo in the Indian diaspora may be due to PM Modi’s popularity; many American-Indians endorse Trump for presidentship only because of his perceived closeness to PM Modi. Looking objectively at both Presidential contenders, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the US President would support crucial Indian interests under all circumstances. Howsoever favourably inclined a US President may seem, all invariably put US interests first.
Looking back to 1962, President John F Kennedy openly supported India but actual US support to India was limited to supplies; the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was sent to the Bay of Bengal only when the Chinese seemed to be getting a decisive upper hand. The Kitty Hawk was recalled as soon as China withdrew.
The converse is also true.
The Nixon administration sent the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to support Pakistan in the 1971 war, but as soon as India announced a ceasefire the USS Enterprise steamed back to base.
President Trump, from whom we now expect so much, has been notoriously fickle in his dealings with us. In addition to making the US visa regime incredibly tough, Trump has started a tariff war with India since 2018, calling India ‘tariff king.’
Trump also terminated India’s eligibility for the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), a U.S. trade and development programme offering tarifffree trade, for failure to provide equitable and reasonable market access.
Our experience with other US Presidents has been similar; all were affable and co-operative till US interests were even remotely threatened. There is another subtext to our relationship with the US. In line with our rising economic and military prowess, our relations with many countries, including the US, have improved dramatically in the last few years.
The contraction in our economy, protectionism and our poor score in social indices, may result in many fair-weather friends deserting us.
We also must endeavour to improve relations with our neighbours; these have steadily declined due to domestic political issues. The unpalatable truth is that, if the present trend continues, we may see our influence and importance decline, not only with the US but, worldwide.
Though, Trump often trumpets his closeness to PM Modi and his love for the Indian people, he had only negative words to say about India in his first Presidential debate with Biden, in which he accused India of fudging coronavirus figures and contributing to climate change.
Again, disturbingly for the Indian Government, the challenger Biden has released an “Agenda for Muslim-American Communities” as part of his campaign material, denouncing the Indian government’s unilateral stripping of the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Kamala Harris ~ Biden’s vice-presidential nominee ~ despite her part-Indian origin, has often condemned what she calls ‘the Indian government’s crackdown on civil rights.’
The silver lining is that Biden is not opposed to India, whatever be his differences with the agenda of the present Indian government.
In an interview in December 2006, as a Ranking Member in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Biden had said, “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States.” Biden had also copiloted the crucial resolution that paved the way for the negotiations on the pathbreaking IndiaUS civil nuclear cooperation agreement.
Thereafter, Biden had steadfastly supported the proposed nuclear deal in the US Senate, in the teeth of opposition by fellow Democrats, particularly then Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the aftermath of the nuclear test of 1998, as Chairman of SFRC, Joe Biden had written to President George Bush advising him to remove economic sanctions against India.
Recently, speaking at an event commemorating the Indian Independence Day, Biden said that he would “stand with India” and his administration would “confront the threats (India) faces in its own region and along its border.” In a veiled reference to Pakistan, Biden further said that he would not tolerate cross-border terrorism against India. Trump’s outspokenly belligerent stance towards China and his oft-repeated assertion that Biden is soft on China is more of election-speak.
Biden has often said that he is opposed to technology theft by China, its South China Sea claims, and its territorial aggression particularly along the India-China border. Ultimately, given the bitter Sino-US rivalry, India is assured of US support regardless of who becomes President but past experience shows that in an actual conflict, US support to India would be limited to encouraging words and at the most, materials; the bottom line being that we have to look after our own defences.
Since Trump’s thinking is more compatible with the philosophy of the present Indian government, with him at the helm, Indo-US relations will continue in the present mode; lots of good words for each other but India getting shortchanged on crucial trade issues.
On the other hand, Biden is overly mindful of civil liberties and is more liberal and leftward in his thinking, therefore, after factoring in the US predilection of acting as the global policeman and conscience-keeper, our dayto-day dealings with a Biden administration may not be very smooth.
Finally, we have to remember what Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez said about the US Presidential Elections: “The people of the United States are one of the people I most admire in the world. The only thing I don’t understand is why a country that manages to do so well, cannot do better in choosing its president.”