Unlike China or the coronavirus pandemic, India has been barely mentioned in the US presidential election campaign. But the outcome of that election could have a significant impact on India-US relations, described by former President Barack Obama as the “defining partnership of the 21st century.”
If President Donald Trump is re-elected, his personal bond of mutual praise with Prime Minister Narendra Modi would continue to underline the relationship, coupled with a transactional approach that allows differences over trade and market access to come in the way of strategic considerations.
A President Joe Biden, however, might be more willing to ignore the number of Harley Davidson motorcycles sold and the tariffs on them to help build India as a counterweight to China.
Although American politics is deeply polarised, close relations with India enjoys strong bipartisan support. The ties have flourished under Republican President George W. Bush as much as under Democrat Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, a function of geopolitics and the recognition that the US needs a strong India. After all, India is the only country in the world other than China that has a population of more than one billion.
In the only presidential debate that has taken place so far between President Trump and former Vice-President Biden, India was mentioned only in passing. But both candidates have expressed support for robust India-US relations in the past and both parties have experts in their ranks with strong ideas about India.
But President Trump tends not to listen to experts and has a primarily transactional approach to international relations. Trump approaches foreign leaders like he would a potential customer for one of his properties. He flatters them and makes them feel good.
Trump did the same with Prime Minister Modi, but at the end of the day, there has been little advancement in the strategic partnership despite successful ‘feel good’ events such as ‘Howdy! Modi’ in Houston and ‘Namaste Trump’ in Ahmedabad. The two countries failed to reach a comprehensive trade deal and India is nowhere near acquiring American fighter jets for its air force.
What Republicans want
For Indian leaders, interactions with other countries may include useful transactions but the core of the relationship always has a strategic dimension. New Delhi might find the non-transactional Democratic approach, which was also the Republican position before Trump, more appealing.
Historically, Democratic presidents going back to Harry Truman have embraced the notion that India’s rise, in and of itself, is good for the United States. While Democratic administrations would like India to grow faster economically and be a partner in countering China, it has rarely been about specific quid pro quo.
Compared to that strategic altruism, most Republicans have seen US relations with India as subject to specific conditions. They view India’s economic growth only in terms of how it benefits American companies. Republicans such as Richard Nixon resented India’s reluctance to align with the US against the Soviet Union and would now want India to take more risks in confronting China as part of the US grand strategy.
There have been exceptions. The administrations of Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) and George W. Bush (2000-08) understood the benefit to America that could accrue from India’s rise even if New Delhi did not make it easy for US corporations to do business there.
Eisenhower was keen that the US “give India a chance to grow as a free and democratic country” and Bush knew that close ties with India would benefit American grand strategic goals. They differed from the Trump view that market access and purchase of US military hardware at high prices and without technology transfer should be the measure of the depth of India-US ties.
A second Trump administration could be different from the first one. The US need to create a broad alliance against China in the Indo-Pacific might lead to reconsideration of the current transactional approach. Trump would then have to adapt chapters from the Eisenhower and Bush Junior playbooks. But it is unlikely that the President would change his core worldview.
What Democrats see in India
For Biden and the Democrats, embracing India would be the default position. Liberal Americans have argued since the 19th century about the need to help India play a greater role on the global stage. The argument was made in detail in the 1930 book The Case for India by historian and co-author of the multi-volume The Story of Civilization, Will Durant.
Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) championed India’s independence but failed to convince UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill of its immediate necessity. Roosevelt also appointed special representatives to India from 1941 onwards whose aim was to “make Indians feel that America is with them and in a position to go beyond mere public assurances of friendship.”
India’s civilisational past, population, economic potential, and democratic example attracted and still attract liberals to India. Even before he became President, John F. Kennedy championed ties with an India that was the “free and thriving leader of a free and thriving Asia” and not just because India should win the conflict with China for “economic and political leadership of the East.”
Four decades later, Bill Clinton, in his address to the Indian Parliament in March 2000, noted that while “virtually every challenge humanity knows can be found here in India”, at the same time “every solution to every challenge can be found here as well: confidence in democracy; tolerance for diversity; a willingness to embrace social change”.
A tougher bargain
The India-US partnership is now a multi-faceted partnership that ranges from the traditional arenas of military and economics to a knowledge partnership in high technology areas, space and cyber, and healthcare. It is likely to endure past the US election and India’s own turn towards majoritarian nationalism and excessive focus on identity politics.
Some Indian commentators argue that recent critiques of India over issues pertaining to democracy and religious freedom might increase under the Democrats. But the Trump administration’s willingness to ignore India’s internal dynamic may not last as the Republican position if Trump loses.
Both political parties in the United States have championed democracy, economic liberty, and religious freedom. A Biden administration will emphasise shared values and interests with India, as the Trump administration does. Biden would probably ease the tensions on trade but would be more willing to speak out on India’s perceived drift towards illiberality. Either way, Indians would have to accept that a strategic partnership cannot be completely friction-free.
Aparna Pande is Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington-DC based Hudson Institute. Her books include ‘Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (Routledge, 2011), ‘From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy’ (Harper Collins, 2017) and ‘Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power’ (Harper Collins, 2020). Views are personal.