The fun thing about an American presidential elections is its slam bang nature where the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties and the media, lining up on either side, go at each other, hammer and tongs, in unending and enjoyable bouts of name calling and verbal slug fests that build up to a train wreck with the results Nov 3 providing relief.
The special interest this year relates to Donald Trump seeking reelection in a year when everything that can go wrong has gone wrong or is going wrong in the US, not little because of the actions of the President himself. The economy has plummeted following the pandemic, lives and livelihoods in the millions are lost — at last count over 30 million are out of work and, in the wake of the Minneapolis policeman’s knee on the neck death of a black man, race relations are on the boil and riots and social unrest prevail in many American cities.
The start point was the corona. Beginning in January this year when the first instances of the corona virus were evidenced in that country to now, six months later, when it has killed 165,000 with the death rate rising at the rate of an American succumbing every 80 seconds, Trump has been in absolute denial. He has denied the essential nature of the virus, the global pandemic it has caused, and the manner of its spread. In the face of hard irrefutable contrary data and reality, he has stuck pigheadedly to his line that (1) all’s well, (2) the US is faring better than every other country in the world, (3) testing for the virus is the reason why the numbers of the afflicted are so high, and (4) things like masks, social distancing, and lock downs recommended by medical professionals to contain the spread, are unwanted restraints on the economy and delay the return of normalcy.
His solutions for the slumping US economy are bad enough — increasing tariffs, shutting down trade, cutting social welfare benefits for the needy and unemployed and cutting taxes on the wealthy and, for the pandemic, are wackier still even by the vaudeville standard of his presidency. Trump has recommended as antidote that (i) doing nothing and people going about their lives normally will lead to the virus, somehow, magically, “miraculously” “disappearing”, (ii) people ingest hydroxychloroquine — a drug to tackle other maladies (such as malaria) — labelled by Trump as “gift of God” — that appalled doctors warned, far from alleviating danger, would actually do serious harm, and which is where India stepped briefly into the Trumpian circus lights owing to his personal call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ship as much of this drug to America as India has stocks of, and to top it all (iii) “inject” detergent — yea, the stuff you clean toilets with — into the human body to “kill the virus”! Sure, it will kill the virus as also the person so treated. He even mused to the Press that exposing the virus to light — somehow introduced inside the bodies of corona-infected patients could be a cure! Even as Trump thus holds forth, his medical advisers sit stony-faced in the press room trying desperately not to chortle in the President’s face — the situation being too serious to even laugh at nonsense.
So, why is the unbearably impulsive and mercurial Trump with a mental disorder, as his niece and professional psychologist, Mary Trump, alleges in her book, better for India than the more mainstream and old world Joe Biden and his part-Indian running mate, Kamala Harris?
(The Tamil brahmin half of the aspirant to US Vice President’s post is what the media here is making much of as if she is some long lost daughter of Chennai who has little else in mind than doing good for that city and India! Ms. Harris’ mother, Shyamala, apparently left for the US to study endocrinology at UC, Berkeley, in the 1960s where she met her husband and Kamala’s father, Donald Harris — a fellow foreign student from Jamaica, now professor of economics at Stanford University. Clearly, Ms. Harris doesn’t lack for intellect or, as she has displayed throughout her career, political moxie compared to her Republican counterpart, the stiff and humourless Mike Pence, who calls his wife “Mother”! The Delhi effect will be for Kamala’s maternal uncle, Dr G. Balachandran, for many years the nonproliferation mainstay at IDSA, to be thrust into the limelight.)
Since late 2018, Trump has more reasonably targeted China for carrying on with unbalanced and unfair trade, for stealing US secrets and intellectual property rights and, most recently, and for deliberately causing a pandemic by allowing what he calls the ‘China virus’ — corona virus by another name, to spread to all over the world from its locus genesis in the city of Wuhan. He has shutdown Chinese investments in the high technology sectors in Silicon valley and elsewhere, stopped the entry of Chinese citizens into the US, threatened to sanction particular members of the Chinese nomenklatura, been more aggressive in showing flag in support of its Asian partners and allies in the East Sea and the South China Sea by deploying US aircraft carrier task groups and smaller naval flotillas on freedom of navigation patrols, transferred a bunch of advanced military hardware to Taiwan, and led a ruckus over Beijing’s move to, in effect, absorb Hong Kong, which is violative of its treaty obligations to the United Kingdom. By thus politically and militarily pressing China, restricting Chinese imports into America, and slowing down its economy, US distracts Beijing and indirectly advantages India.
Trump did all this unilaterally with spur-of-moment decisions — initiatives that the US State Department opposed but could do nothing to stop. From India’s point of view it was an immeasurably good thing to happen because these various streams of Trump’s anti-China policy came together and peaked around the time Beijing had begun annexing Indian territory in eastern Ladakh earlier this summer. The unintended but beneficial consequence for India was that it put the brakes on whatever plans the Xi Jinping-chaired Central Military Commission may have originally tasked the People’s Liberation Army with achieving. Beijing realized that it had opened too many fronts at the same time, and by at least notionally negotiating with the Modi government put off more difficult choices. All the while though, Beijing made it plain that Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar’s June 19 demand for restoration of status quo ante was, well, for the birds, and that it would keep what it has occupied.
Xi’s amor propre required that China respond substantively if not in equally harsh measure to the US, afraid that pushing the Trump Administration too far would permanently damage its interests in the US, which it can’t afford to happen. But there’s a ratcheting up of the action-reaction chain, which again assists India’s cause. However, should Biden-Harris get voted to power — which I predicted will happen come November in a June 4 post (“The end of Trump”), the US will revert to its longstanding policy of mutual accommodation with China that will entail easing the pressure, especially in the contested maritime domain in Asia and vis a vis the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia extending to the Gulf and West Asia. That was, after all, what the US’ China policy during the Obama years was when Biden was Vice President. Recall Obama and Xi agreeing on a two-power condominium — G-2 to rule the world? This will not be good for India.
Far worse, the US policy establishment, reviled as the “deep state” by Trump and his appointees, will get the prospective Biden policy back on its nuclear nonproliferation hinge, and resume its focus of the last 45-odd years of getting India to “cap, freeze, rollback” its nuclear weapons programme. Trump, on his part, dismantled the international nuclear order by ending the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT-II) with Russia on the reasonable ground that without China in it such an accord makes little sense, ditching the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in Europe, and junking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran — any of which events could have been used by a strong-minded Indian government to initiate nuclear testing to acquire proven and tested high yield thermonuclear weapons. In the event, Modi will be arm-twisted into getting India back on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty track in the disarmament negotiations in Geneva, with the goal of compelling the Indian government to renounce all future nuclear testing — the foundation of the deleterious 2008 civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US that Jaishankar, as Joint Secretary (Americas), had negotiated with Washington.
In parallel, the old US policy of maintaining the power balance in South Asia will be resumed vigorously by Biden. It had wavered a bit during the Trump tenure owing to Modi’s making an impression on the US President that culminated in his grand reception in Delhi in January this year. All that goodwill, if not zeroed out, then the tenor of the bilateral relationship will be recalibrated. What this will mean in practice is that Pakistan will once again be able to rely on both China and the US to actively help it to square off against India. And, of course, the Democratic party and Biden-Harris in particular will be far more inclined to collar India on the Kashmir, human rights abuses, and similar issues.
The slight positives with Biden in will be in two areas: the pressure on India to buy the old and counterproductive Lockheed F-16 combat aircraft dressed up as F-21 that Trump was pushing on Modi, will recede. And the old H1B visa regime much liked by Indian IT firms sending off armies of software techies to America to do jobs at cut rate salaries, and that Modi tried his damndest to convince Trump to go easy on and failed, may return. It will open up the gates for Indian professionals to go more easily to the US, to augment their earnings by getting their spouses to work on the H-4 visa that Trump had closed down, and to try and convert their H1B status to ‘green card’ and permanent residency. Back home. it will consolidate the support of this section of the aspiring Indian middle class behind Modi by the time the 2024 general elections roll around.
On balance, it is obvious India’s interests are better served by the Republican Administration under Trump, which is ideologically and viscerally at odds with Communist China than by the Biden-Harris combo eager to regain the normal as Beijing sees it. All right thinking Indians must hope Trump returns to power even if that mightily screws up the internal situation in that country and roils the American society. But that’s for Americans to worry about.