For India, the swearing-in of Joe Biden as United States President is of considerable importance given that New Delhi is today far more closer to Washington in terms of being a strategic partner with a specifically assigned role in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
Besides this, the Indian government will closely watch Biden and his response to New Delhi’s angst vis-a-vis China and how the new dispensation in Washington views politics in the subcontinent, particular its relationship with Pakistan.
Most importantly, the Biden administration has a challenge in hand on the Afghan peace talks the outcome of which is crucial for India given New Delhi’s close relationship with Kabul and Pakistan’s association with the Taliban.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had personally invested a lot in striking a personal relationship with former US President Donald Trump, will have a task in hand recalibrating equations with the new incumbent.
While one would have expected India to go gaga over the election of Afro-Indian-American Vice President Kamala Harris, her critical views on New Delhi’s action in suspending autonomy for Kashmir and on human rights issues seem to have muted New Delhi’s response to her ascendance in Washington.
However, overall, much of the world, including India, would be relieved in the assumption of office of Biden as he is antithetical to Trump in all ways. Biden comes across as a sober, almost a self-effacing individual, who is not known to spring nasty surprises, unlike his unpredictable predecessor.
For instance, ‘Namaste’ Trump and ‘Howdy’ Modi gave the impression with their public bonhomie that they were close friends with the underlying assumption that it would benefit India. It probably did as Trump saw India as a close strategic ally, invited it to be part of the Quad group (the others being Japan and Australia) and frequently took India’s side in its border shenanigans with China.
In fact, according to reports, Trump had planned to bolster India militarily, economically and otherwise with a view to taking on China.
However, if the Modi government thought it had a reliable friend in Trump, came in the unexpected action – that of deleting India from the list of countries that enjoyed preferential trade with the US. Much to the shock of New Delhi, during the US presidential debates Trump used an almost-unparliamentary word calling Delhi a “filthy” city referring to its pollution, and accusing the Modi government of fudging COVID figures.
Trump also did not hesitate to use his clout as president in arm-twisting New Delhi to all but stop importing oil from Iran and stymie its long-standing relationship with Tehran. The Modi government had little option but to fall in line. In other words, Trump was “friends” with India but on his terms.
This element of unpredictability is not expected of Biden whose background as a career politician is rich with experience in foreign relations, having been in the US senate for at least four decades and as vice-president during former president Barack Obama’s administration for two full terms.
The sobriety and professional expertise that Biden brings to US politics will have immediate repercussions on the administration’s foreign policy. In the medium term, it may turn out to be beneficial for India.
For instance, though the Modi government expected the Trump administration to pressure China to back off from its transgressions on the border with India, in reality, the US could do nothing substantial besides public proclamations painting Beijing as the villain.
The Biden administration may not be able to outright swing the India-China issue in New Delhi’s favour, but given the vast hands-on experience of the new incumbent, no surprises if Washington does manage to convince Beijing to drop, or at least dilute, its aggression with neighbours, including India.
Or take the other issue crucial for India – on technology outsourcing. The Trump administration had introduced a number of obstacles for Indians in procuring the H1B employment visa that led to consternation in the country’s IT sector. Despite representations, Trump had stonewalled any move to relax the restrictions. While, no doubt, it was part of his overall policy to cut back on immigration and ensure jobs returned to US nationals, among the most affected was India.
Biden, on the other hand, has indicated that he will revisit Trump’s policies on immigration which will bring relief to the Indian H1B-dependant diaspora. Similarly, among the spate of reviews of Trump’s policies and decisions that the Biden administration plans in the immediate future, there is hope that the new incumbent will return India’s status among the countries that enjoy preferential trade with the US.
The Modi government will surely attempt to get into the good books of the Biden administration, but it will not be easy to penetrate or influence the US’s long-term foreign policy objective in the subcontinent.
One real sticking point with India that may not see much of a difference in the response of the Biden administration from that of Trump’s is New Delhi’s $5 billion deal with Russia for the purchase of the S-400 air defence missile system.
The Trump administration had cautioned India against going ahead with the deal on the grounds that it could impact its overall mutual military relationship.
The issue goes beyond the personal proclivities of Trump or Biden as the US deep state sees it as a threat to its strategic interests and the fear that sensitive military technology could leak to Russia. The US’s congressional research service (CRS) in a recent report warned that India could face sanctions if it did not call off the deal with Moscow. So far, the Modi government has not relented.
Though on paper the prognosis looks good for India, especially given that the Biden administration has a slew of Indian-Americans in key positions, it would be foolhardy to imagine that there would be a significant tilt in favour of New Delhi unless that fits into the US’s foreign policy objectives.