It is stunning — the width and resilience of the incumbent President Donald J Trump’s vote base. Despite doing everything wrong, he could win a second term! On his watch, he grossly mismanaged the novel Corona pandemic and wrecked the US economy, spiked unemployment to unprecedented levels (30%), and stoked the deadly corona health crisis with ridiculous assertions (the virus will “disappear miraculously”) and laughable ‘snake oil’ remedies (insertion of “light” inside the bodies of infected patients and injecting common bathroom detergent into veins!!).
His record of reckless policies and corruption — his Secret Service protectors, for instance, are charged room and board at extortionist rates at Trump-owned hotels and golf resorts where the president invariably chooses to stay, and of a raft of foreign and economic policies designed to further his family’s interests — Trump properties in several countries (including India) coupled to his blowing up of Constitutional norms and political proprieties, has not fazed his followers who have elevated him to a cult figure. Trump is verily a Yankee version of the self-serving Indian politician!
He tarred the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris duo as carriers of “socialism” into America — a dog whistle for all kinds of people ranging from immigrants escaping socialist states (Cuba, Venezuela), anti-abortionists, to extreme racists who vow to use violence to return America to a supposedly pristine all-White past!
Except, he has run into headwinds building up over the last four years. Based on intense dislike of Trump and his destruction-derby mentality, the president has turned very large swathes of the American society against him. Educated, liberal, Whites, and bulk of minority and immigrant populations and even mainstream ideologically conservative Republican party voters — especially suburban house wives — who find the President’s crudities and excesses hard to accept. The mailed-in votes are still being counted in several crucial states, but the trend suggests Joe Biden and the democrats may squeak into the White House.
The Narendra Modi-led BJP government, like the Manmohan Singh-headed Congress coalition regime, with Ministry of External Affairs in the van, invested a lot politically and diplomatically in Trump and the Republican party. While in the George W Bush and Barack Obama years Washington pushed its national interests using the liberal world order as cover, Trump dispensed with that pretense and made bilateral relations, to Delhi’s consternation, a purely transactional affair. Modi tried to get around this bump by personally cultivating Trump but it failed to pay dividend. His administration did not water down its antipathy to any and all channels of immigration from “shithole” Third World countries, involving illegal influx at one end to high-tech coolies India has funneled into the US using the H1B visa, at the other end, notwithstanding pitiable pleadings by Modi and his sidekick, S Jaishankar, at every meeting to ease up on the movement of skilled labour India can ill afford to lose. He imposed a policy of denying India the benefit of concessionary trade provisions in the Generalized System of Preferences and did not relent in the face of repeated supplications by Delhi.
The only favour Trump showed India — and here the shared threat perception of China and security of the Indo-Pacific region, has come in handy — is his pushing Modi to buy expensive, mostly dated, military hardware — M-777 light howitzer, F-16/21, etc. Delhi has compromised by making regular buys of transport planes — the C-1380J and C-17, and of maritime recon P-8I aircraft, to placate Washington and keep it engaged. Similar motivation has resulted in the Indian government in this past decade acceding to the four “foundational accords” (LEMOA, COMCASA. GSOMIA & BECA) desired by the US with “India-specific” exceptions being signed into them, which may not mean much. Even in purely transactional terms, India has received little in return for surrendering its freedom of action and “strategic autonomy”. Conclusion: Indian leaders, across the board, like to be taken for a ride.
The good thing, however, about Trump’s tit-for-tat basis of US foreign policy was that it took uncertainty out of the calculation! India, or any other country, knew exactly where it stood on any issue, what to expect, and the kind of deal Washington would be amenable to signing. But mostly it compelled friendly states to look out for their own interests and their own security. The reason why, on this blog, four years ago I welcomed Trump’s presidency and warned MEA to retool its US policy accordingly. It was advice the Indian government, of course, ignored to the country’s detriment. Because by persisting with a beggar bowl policy that looked to America for succour, the Modi government pushed India deeper into dependency status and lost the country respect in the world.
With Trump possibly becoming history, what does a Biden-Harris Administration mean for India?
Firstly, a 180-degree turn is likely to be affected on the human rights front. Pramila Jayapal, a fashionably leftist Indian-origin Congresswoman from Washington state, prompted by the curbs in J&K, is spearheading an HR anti-India campaign. Not too long ago she introduced in the House of Representatives (the lower house of the US legislature) a resolution condemning India for denying Kashmiris rights and freedoms. The resolution HS Res.745 urged “the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents”.
The significant thing about this resolution is that it managed to attract some 93 fellow Congresspersons from both the Democratic and Republican parties, constituting a quarter of the 435-representative-strong House, as co-sponsors. It may not have the force of presidential directive or executive order, but it could be the precursor of a punitive US policy. This initiative is in the context of the US Commission on Religious Freedoms recently charging India with restricting such freedom. “I have fought to strengthen the special US-India relationship, which is why I’m deeply concerned”, tweeted Jayapal, by way of explanation. “Detaining people w/out charge, severely limiting communications, & blocking neutral third-parties from visiting the region is harmful to our close, critical bilateral relationship,”
Indians being a sentimental people, we were pleased as punch when a half-Tamilian Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, admitted her love of idli with “really good Sambar” and for “any kind of Tikka”. This kind of familiarity led many to conclude that real India-friendly policies may be in the offing. And that being the VP places her in a good position to be her party’s presidential candidate in 2024. This last is winter dreamin’. The fact is the real reason why Biden hasn’t sailed through this election by walloping Trump as was expected in many American quarters is because the White majority is simply not ready for a coloured woman president to takeover from Biden.
The mere prospect of this may have turned many voters away from backing Biden. Indeed, if anything, the rethink in Democratic party circles will lead to the selection of a middle of the road white politician to be its standard bearer in the next election cycle given that Biden has already pronounced himself a bridge to the next generation of leaders. The question is what kind of leader? In realistic terms then, Kamala Harris because she has been a drag on the Biden ticket and is not acceptable to the white majority will not be acceptable to the Democratic party either in the future. There dies the Indian dream for our Kamala. It also ends the Democratic party’s dalliance with leftist policies which are anathema to most American people.
But what can one expect by way of Biden’s foreign and security policies? The advisers to Biden, are all Washington establishment type. Such as Anthony Blinken, who has been advising Biden since 2002 and was his National Security Adviser for eight years in the Obama Administration. Blinken is joined by Tom Donilon, sometime NSA to Obama, Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat who negotiated with Jaishankar the civilian nuclear deal with India, Kurt Campbell, a Far East expert, and Michèle Flournoy, who may become the first female US Secretary of Defence.
All of them have had a hand in propping up the old American treaty system in Asia and, this is important, balancing power in the subcontinent by tilting discreetly on Pakistan’s side. This does not mean the Biden dispensation will not try and build on the foundational accords to advantage US interests in the Indo-Pacific. Rather, that Messrs Blinken & Co., like the Trump Admin will be partial to not alienating Islamabad considering an Afghanistan solution is still hanging fire and generally to keep India muzzled. These advisers are divided on China with some of them believing that where China is concerned the US ought to show “humility” and carefully manage Sino-American relations. Others more realistically have talked of “great power competition” being back. They all share the view, however, that while Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’ s Russia are powers to reckon with, they are convinced that the world can’t do without American leadership and that the US still needs to lead (on climate, for instance) even if it cannot any longer throw its weight around as it once did.
Then there’s a powerful element in the Democratic party beholden to Bernie Sanders, which thinks that after the disastrous Trump term America is in need of internal repair and democracy building and that this should be priority, not foreign ventures. So for quite different reasons, the Biden Admin too may be inward-turned, preoccupied with righting the domestic scene scarred by racial turmoil and political unrest necessitating a rebuilding of the US polity.
This may mean that India will be left to its own devices to look after its own security and economic interests the best it can. If the Jayapal initiative is guide, the Modi government may be well advised to not harp over much, even if indirectly, on the Muslim-ness and Pakistani-ness of the terrorist threat India faces. Because unlike with the Trump cohort, such stance will have less traction in Biden’s Washington. However, Indian policies may be better received in Washington if it substantially reorients its national security policy to take on China instead but without expecting the US to pitch in other than marginally in the collective Asian-regional containment effort.
As to the belief prevailing in some circles in India that a Democratic party Administration will be more open in its trade policies and welcome a bigger volume of Indian exports, they will be disappointed. Like the President (Obama) he served, Biden has made plain that he is for “inshoring”, the opposite of out-sourcing, and aims to incentivize American companies and financial institutions to invest and grow the manufacturing and other industries in the US as a means of addressing the high unemployment problem. That rules out relief for India.
Whatever the difference in the outlook and approach of Republican Trump and Democratic Biden, for India it is a choice between poisons.