Following 96 hours of a vote-count thriller, all major American media networks projected Joe Biden to be the next President of USA. With shrunken coverage, an upset Donald Trump subsisted in denial, declaring victory, fraud and legal action — all at once via his infamous Twitter handle.
Global leaders, including PM Modi, congratulated Biden as he won the Electoral College and the popular vote choice by over five million votes. But it wasn’t long ago when in Houston, Texas, from the stage of ‘Howdy Modi’, the Indian PM appealed to Indian Americans to vote for a ‘Trump Sarkar’ and welcomed Trump to a packed Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad.
So does this imply that India loses the perceived advantage in its relationship with America as Trump leaves office? Was Trump really a good ally for India? What will be Joe Biden’s outlook?
Trump’s Foreign Policy
With a divisive, xenophobic, hyper-nationalistic and an ultra-conservative election campaign, Trump promised to Make America Great Again in 2016. He was successful in striking a chord with millions of Americans whose lives or preferences have suffered due to the development of global trade, Chinese exports, technology and liberalisation over the past decades. Trump amassed authoritative loyalty, apparent in many of his statements, eg. “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”.
However, to meet the objective of re-election, he recognised the need to constantly appeal to his voter base and this idea was at the centre of his foreign policy outlook. Trump administration prioritised an ‘inward-looking - America first’ rhetoric against the long-established ‘leading from the front’ strategy, with a primary focus on photo opportunities, announcements and deals which could be bragged about as ‘big wins for America’ delivered exclusively by Trump. For instance, increasing tariffs worth a few thousand dollars on the export of Harley Davidson bikes to India (India imported less than 700 bikes per year) was a major priority over dealing with complex issues like Kashmir.
PM Modi recognised Trump’s photo-op needs, read his approach, and moved in early to be successful in having Trump like him. But while the two leaders exchanged deep hugs and long handshakes for the cameras, India was unable to buy oil from Iran (10 per cent of India’s supply) due to sanctions imposed by the US. Trump referred to India as a “filthy country”, thousands of Indian professionals suffered from stringent H1B visa rules, and India was directly caught in the friction with China’s assertive quest to take pole position in global leadership.
The Trump administration not only pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord (jeopardising associated benefits to India), but also did not appear to intervene in critical events around India, often citing them as domestic matters of a country — such as the abrupt removal of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan’s PM in 2017, allegedly at the behest of the Pakistani army, or the escalations between India and Pakistan during Balakot and Uri strikes. Under Trump, America ceased being the unspoken global sheriff of democracy, leaving the centre stage open for Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and other alpha male leaders.
Biden’s Track Record
Speaking to the press for the first time after his victory night speech, Joe Biden reflected upon his phone conversations with major world leaders: "I'm letting them know that America is back. We're going to be back in the game.” This positioning is a clear departure from the current status under Trump, though the extent to which Biden is willing to restore the American global leadership remains uncertain.
With his 47 years of experience and an eight-year term as the Vice President, Biden understands the global diplomatic, economic and military challenges.
From an Indian perspective, Biden led the US Senate’s approval for the Indo-US nuclear deal and several anti-terrorism legislations. He has actively supported the removal of US sanctions on India and also advocated for India to have a ‘seat at the high table’ on the global arena, including in his latest election manifesto. While Trump administration’s perceived tough stance on Pakistan provides comfort to Indian interests, it is in fact a lighter version of Joe Biden’s 2009 act in Congress which proposed a further harsher policy. Biden’s proposal did not just call for Pakistan to end support to terrorism and Taliban, but for the Pakistani President to certify zero interference of the military in political affairs. As far as Pakistan is concerned, Biden knows what he is dealing with and is expected to continue with a pragmatic approach.
With a clear and well-known Soviet inclination in the past, India's diplomacy currently trades under the ‘non-aligned’ canopy with an objective to maintain its diplomatic autonomy. It is only under the Vajpayee era in the early 2000s when India coined itself to be "a natural ally" of the US. Since then, we have seen a significant increase in diplomatic activity; but due to India’s drawn-out rate of reforms and economic development, the political momentum has yielded limited tangible gains.
In recent times, it is the rise of a common concern with China that has drawn the two countries to come closer on strategy. Though under Biden, India can expect to reach out to a more open-minded, globally-oriented power to seek assistance on issues with Pakistan and China, it cannot expect that US interests will always share a common concern.
In order for India to gain long term US patronage, we need to consciously develop a significant volume of economic, technological, cultural connections.
However, we should not expect the Biden administration to turn a blind eye towards India’s domestic affairs, particularly pertaining to the aspects of minorities, Kashmir and diversity. The current politically-convenient set-up of being able to execute a nationalist domestic agenda, decoupled from foreign policy outlook blended well with the Trump-model. This was vividly at display when Trump visited India amidst 2020 communal riots in Delhi. Rather than take notice of the violence, he chose to visit Taj Mahal for yet another photograph.
As a contrast, now with Kamala Harris as the Vice President and other key democratic members as part of the Biden government, India should expect resistance to its own hyper-nationalistic initiatives such as CAA, NRC, and Article 370.
On the economic front, the Indian government has recently carried a series of long-overdue agriculture, land and labour reforms during the pandemic. As a strong pushback signal to active Chinese assertions, India has not only reacted with tactical military action, but also generated thrust with its partners in the Quad (Japan, Australia, and the USA).
Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State and Defense Chief Mark Esper paid a visit to India (a month ago) during the presidential election in the US and remarked, “The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty.” These recent encouraging economic and diplomatic developments will need to be backed with the clear political will to shy away from the ambiguous ‘non-aligned’ approach and making a conscious choice to truly connect with a superpower.
After all, how long can you be the reluctant bride?