Rarely have Indian stakes been riding as high as now on the United States presidential elections. The border standoff for the last six months with China, the incessant tension with Pakistan over Kashmir and the fate of the Taliban in Afghanistan are among key issues where the perspective of the US administration is crucial for the Indian government.
Lest anyone get the impression that the current President Donald Trump has gone out of the way to back India, let it be remembered it has not been a carte blanche for New Delhi.
Yes, the Trump administration and top officials like Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have criticised China for needling India on the border in Ladakh. The US has indeed accommodated India in the Quad (Australia and Japan being the other two) which is staging an extensive military exercise off the Malabar coast on Tuesday.
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India has been rapped on the knuckle too. Trump has not hesitated to term India “filthy” on the issue of climate change and has bluntly accused it of falsifying its COVID-19 data. All this while Trump was on national and international television during the recent presidential debate.
Earlier, the Trump administration “punished” India for not reducing tariffs on US goods – by deleting it from the preferential list of countries that trade with the US.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have hugged Trump, flouted all convention, and exclaimed “abki baar Trump sarkar” (this time it is the turn of the Trump administration) during the Howdy Modi event at Houston. And, Trump may have been hugely entertained at the “Namaste Trump” in Ahmedabad.
If at all, both events were an attempt to hype the aura of bonhomie between the two politicians. But that meant nothing when it came to Trump trying to score a point on climate change and COVID even if it meant mouthing distasteful epithets at “close friend” India.
Essentially, it proves the point that relations between two countries are not determined by how many times the president of one country and the prime minister of another meet, or how they behave with each other on stage. On the contrary, what moves relationship between two nations, like the US and India, are real interests that lie deeper beyond transient issues.
If Trump loses the elections and is replaced by the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, the fundamentals in US-India relationship will remain; they will be allies. For the US, India is an important country in Asia and the establishment in Washington has its own perspective on how it would like to use New Delhi to its advantage.
For example, India is seen as a counter to the fast-growing and increasingly aggressive China. Especially, India as part of the US-led Quad, an alliance with Japan and Australia, that Washington hopes will rein in China in the Pacific. In the event of Biden coming to power, this arrangement is unlikely to be disturbed.
But the Democrats’ views on Kashmir may differ from that of the Republicans. Historically, the Republicans have favoured India unconditionally compared to the Democrats. The caveat to this is that Trump himself was an outlier in the Republican camp and his approach was more individualistic rather than a well thought-out party agenda. For instance, it is doubtful that any other Republican president would have used the word “filthy” to describe India or accused New Delhi of doctoring COVID data like Trump did. Even more importantly, whether a non-Trump Republican president would have removed India from the trade list of preferential countries.
The Democrats, and Joe Biden is a quintessential Democrat, view India as an important ally. But they are also concerned about human rights violations, labour-related issues and the rule of law in other countries including in India.
Take the previous Democratic president Barack Obama. As president, in a private chat with Modi, he said India should not be divided on religious lines and the country should cherish the Muslim community that identified itself as Indians, which cannot be said of minorities in many other countries. Obama, after he laid down office, revealed this conversation that he had with Modi.
Republicans, especially Trump, on the other hand have generally not commented negatively on India’s internal issues. If at all, Trump himself has come across as a strong opponent of the Islamic community as seen from his orders banning Muslims (eventually restricted to a few countries) from entering the US etc.
Democrats have sharply criticised the Modi government’s abrogation of special status to Kashmir under the Indian Constitution, the act of incarcerating mainstream opposition leaders in the valley and the shutdown of internet there for an extended period. Vice-president nominee and Indian origin politician Kamala Harris too is on the same page as the rest of the Democrats on this issue.
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Joe Biden would want India to restore the rights of all Kashmiris, and has expressed disappointment over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the implementation of the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, according to agency reports quoting him, in a policy paper.
“These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy,” according to the policy paper — ‘Joe Biden’s agenda for Muslim American community’ posted on his campaign website.
Trump, on the other hand, offered to mediate between India and Pakistan while describing Kashmir as a “big problem”. There was never any criticism to the Modi government’s move by his administration.
But the Trump dispensation has refused to countenance New Delhi’s reservations regarding bringing the Taliban into the mainstream in Afghanistan. For India, the rehabilitation of the Taliban is bad news while it is good for Pakistan. The US, however, does not want to see it this way. As far as it is concerned, it wants to get out of Afghanistan and let the Afghans handle the future any which way they want – India’s concerns be damned.
The prognosis is clear for India. A Biden victory will bring in an Indian-American Kamala Harris for the first time to the position of vice-president. India can crow about that, but it does not mean any extra benefits for New Delhi. A Trump victory will see more of the same for India. Nothing more, nothing less.