It was under a Republican administration led by George Bush in 2005 that the United States had denied visa to a certain Gujarat chief minister named Narendra Modi. A Democratic president, Barack Obama, went around hugging PM Modi. His republican successor, Donald Trump, is prone to lash out at India over a few motorcycles, and yet the strategic ties between the two countries have only been growing.
No matter who wins an election in New Delhi or Washington, India-US ties only get stronger. That caveat aside, it is important to note the ups and downs in the relationship.
Should Joe Biden become the next US president, he can only do better for India than Trump did. But Biden may not be politically good for Modi. Such nuance matters, even if we may not like to hear the truth that India isn’t Modi and Modi isn’t India. The country is bigger than its leader, no matter how popular s/he is.
Biden won’t be silent
In January 2015, in the backdrop of a ‘ghar wapsi (religious conversion of minorities)’ campaign by Hindu fundamentalists, Barack Obama spoke in Delhi just before leaving for the airport. In this address, he lectured India on religious tolerance. “No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men and too often, religion has been used to tap into those instead of the light of God. Every person has the right to practise any faith or none as he chooses without the fear of prosecution,” Obama said in a speech that was virtually ticking Modi off in his own capital.
Earlier this year, religious violence broke out in Delhi while President Trump was visiting. Trump refused to speak on the violence, or against the protests around India’s controversial new citizenship law — the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). “I want to leave that to India and hopefully they will make the right decision,” Trump said in a statement in New Delhi, which the American media saw as defending Modi.
Juxtaposing these two incidents will tell you why Narendra Modi may not be so keen about seeing Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House. Both leaders have on record taken positions that make it clear they back a liberal India, and care about it. We can be sure that Biden-Harris won’t give Modi the free pass that Trump did. Biden has expressed disapproval of the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and Kamala Harris’ words on the abrogation of Article 370 should alarm New Delhi: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
It is difficult to imagine India snubbing American lawmakers asking tough questions on Kashmir or anti-Muslim violence and laws — should Biden become president.
Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist base was ecstatic when Donal Trump became president, because of his unabashed Islamophobia. They also saw his victory as a sign of the global legitimacy of nationalist, xenophobic and Islamophobic politics. In a similar fashion, a Democrat victory will have an opposite impact on global politics.
Do we still share the shared values?
Note that even under Trump, the US government hasn’t exactly been silent on the growing deficit of democracy in India. Alice Wells of the US State Department issued statement after statement disapproving of India on the CAA, detained Kashmiri politicians, and internet restrictions in Kashmir. If that’s what the Trump administration did, it is easy to guess that Biden will be louder.
India is no Saudi Arabia for the US that it would look the other way. Confronting China, the US is already stressing more on the good ol’ spiel about democracy, freedom and rights. It won’t be possible for Biden to make a big deal about democratic values and hug Modi three times a year if India’s democratic deficit keeps growing.
Trump-appointed Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was recently in Delhi. Count the number of times he talks about democracy and rights in his short interview with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta. An isolationist Trump may not have cared about democracy, but the Democrats will be back to seeing mutual, shared democratic values of religious freedom, tolerance and democracy as underpinning the India-US relationship. A shared enemy in China alone is not enough.
Modi has also invested too heavily in Indian Americans, but with Kamala Harris as vice president, the Indian American community will not be seen as Modi’s army influencing US politics. More likely that the Hindu fundamentalist noise in the US election will irritate the Democratic leadership. None of this is good news for Modi.
Why Trump wasn’t great for India
Donald Trump was very happy to address stadium full of crowds with Modi. He almost got an endorsement with Modi speaking the words “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar (this time, vote Trump).” But if you look at issues, the Trump presidency hasn’t been great for India.
Trump’s inward-looking, isolationist stance has left the US’ friends such as India feeling betrayed. His protectionist policies have hurt the Indian economy and his xenophobia has hurt Indian immigration visa-seekers more than all the Muslim countries put together.
Donald Trump has forced India to not buy cheaper oil from Iran and Venezuela. (Trump thought Modi wouldn’t mind.) Trump forced India to buy more expensive oil and gas from the United States, even pushing for long-term commitments that aren’t viable. Despite the India-China border tensions, Donald Trump hasn’t given India waiver from an American law that threatens sanctions on countries purchasing arms from Russia.
Meanwhile, Trump raised tariffs on imports from India, on everything from steel to rubber, causing a “mini trade war” with India. He has removed preferential treatment given to Indian exports, further hurting the Indian economy at a time when it’s been bleeding. A host of changes to US visa policies have made it harder for US firms to hire Indians on H-1B work visas. This has hit the Indian outsourcing model hard.
India ratified the Paris climate accord in October 2016 under the presumption that the US will keep its word on the Green Climate Fund that would have invested in Indian renewables. But Trump didn’t want to shell out the money, and blamed India and China for walking out of the Paris Agreement.
Why Biden will be better for India than Trump
A Democrat administration in the US is expected to be more reasoned, mature and act towards India as if it were a friend and not club it with China and other countries on issues of trade, climate change, oil and defence exports.
The Trump administration’s growing hard-line on China has aligned well with India at a time of growing Chinese aggression at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Trump also did take a hard line on Pakistan, if only to avoid giving money to Islamabad. Yet in the bargain, he also ceded space to Islamabad in the Afghanistan peace talks.
A Democrat administration is likely to go back to the drawing board on the US-Iran nuclear deal, opening up not just Iranian oil but also strategic space for India with Iran in the Middle East. A Biden-Harris presidency may also look differently at the Paris Agreement, visas for Indian workers, and so on. All things considered, Biden should be good for India, even if he’s less keen to see relations with India in the personalised format that Modi prefers, and see them more as government-to-government relations.
Trade deal over hugs
That is how it should be. Over-personalised diplomacy has backfired for Modi with Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan) and Xi Jinping (China), and his stadium rallies with Trump will be an embarrassment should Biden win.
Not that Modi’s personalised style was able to tame Trump, who frequently lashed out at India and mimicked Modi, insults we swallowed without a whimper. A Biden presidency won’t embarrass us with offers such as mediation on Kashmir. Just look at how Trump recently insulted India by saying it has ‘filthy air’ and Biden tweeted saying that’s not how you talk about friends.
It is time for India and the US to put their national interests above domestic politics at a time of great Chinese expansionism. India getting a good trade deal with the United States alone will be worth a lot more than the sort of civilian honours that countries like Russia helpfully give Modi before a general election.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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