India-US relations will take new path under Joe Biden
As America voted out incumbent President Donald Trump to reinstate a Democrat regime after a gap of four years, nations – big and small – immediately started calculating the profit and loss of the electoral outcome that the oldest democracy on earth produced.
I too could not resist the temptation of initiating an informal discussion with a former US State Department official – asking him to predict the future of India-US bilateral relations under victor Joe Biden’s presidency. After all, the political significance of this change in America cannot be underestimated in the backdrop of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unprecedented endorsement of Trump’s electoral campaign.
Despite boasting of non-interference as foreign policy principle, Modi went to the extent of organizing purely political events like “Howdy Modi” and “Namaste Trump” – through third parties – only to ensure that Republicans could electorally milk the four million strong immigrant Indians settled in the United States.
The propaganda, to highlight Trump as an unparalleled upholder of Indian interests, was so intense that it compelled the renowned Asia expert Kurt Campbell to concede that the Democratic party’s traditional influence over Indian American community was fading fast.
Strangely, the Indian establishment showed no inhibitions in burning their bridges by constantly ignoring America’s political opposition, as evident from the Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s refusal to meet Pramila Jayapal – the first ever Congresswoman of Indian descent, due to her criticism of Modi’s mishandling of the Kashmir issue.
Modi’s Kashmir policy will be under the lens for intense scrutiny, and definite pushback against policies which pushes minorities to the wall. The Biden commitment to a carbon-free USA by 2050 will bring back focus on India’s unrestrained fossil-fuel usage, and may open up avenues for strategic collaboration in renewable energy.
In his maiden telephonic conversation with Modi after a spectacular poll victory, Biden expressed his desire to work in tandem to confront the shared global challenges gripping humanity.
So where does India stand in Biden’s foreign policy matrix, and what possible shape are India-US relations expected to take, in the context of challenges surrounding trade, security, immigration and climate issues? Besides, what will be the Biden administration’s response to India’s controversial citizenship amendment act, and extended confinement of an entire population in Kashmir, post-abrogation of special constitutional status, which not only caused consternation globally but also compelled the UN Human Rights Council to become a party in the domestic legal battle?
Reminding me of ex-President Bill Clinton’s enormous contribution in renewing US-India relations, the retired American diplomat underlined how painstakingly each and every President, irrespective of their political affiliation, contributed to the advancement of bilateral ties since the 1990’s.
While admitting that India is not always easy to work with, he is however confident that the momentum will continue. Indeed, India is of inherent interest and great value to Americans. The desire for markets and manufacturing, the deep-rooted cultural and family ties, and the shared goal of constraining China's expansionism will reinforce the strategic partnership.
Though a Biden administration is unlikely to go overboard in its opposition to Beijing, preferring a nuanced carrot-and-stick approach instead to avert any armed confrontation – in accordance with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s advice – India will remain a priority for Washington for countering China’s “special challenge.”
And this provides New Delhi with a strategic window to resolve the protracted territorial dispute with Beijing through calibrated co-operation, while simultaneously benefitting from the western world’s quest for an alternative manufacturing hub to reduce dependency on China.
Ironically, given his commitment to proliferation of liberal values, Biden’s ascendancy to power portend a hard time for India’s ruling Hindu right wing, but bode well for the masses in general and a now tottering democracy.
Biden has already flagged the rapid advance of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism, and illiberalism, and promised to use every tool in his command to right the wrong.
That implies Modi’s Kashmir policy will be under the lens for intense scrutiny, and definite pushback against policies which pushes minorities to the wall. The Biden commitment to a carbon-free USA by 2050 will bring back focus on India’s unrestrained fossil-fuel usage, and may open up avenues for strategic collaboration in renewable energy.
While tactical partnership has taken wings through 2+2 Dialogue, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, nuclear energy pact, concretization of the Quad and consolidation of politico-military coordination, the hardest nut to crack will be economic issues. Among these, the finalization of the bilateral investment treaty and the introduction of a liberal visa regime for Indian professionals in the wake of Biden’s assurance to create quality jobs for Americans and the Indian economy’s 23.9 percent slide in the first quarter of 2020-2021-- as well as the reinstatement of India’s privileged access to the US market as a developing economy which was abolished by the Trump administration.
However, Biden’s proposed “middle-class foreign policy” offers hope.
Since it hinges on fortifying American competitiveness in global export, the robustness of India’s huge market can open up the possibility of a reasonable quid-pro-quo. Finally, with New Delhi having burnt its fingers once, new Indo-US bilateral relations overall are expected to be serious state-to-state business, bereft of hug-diplomacy and individualistic gimmickry.
*Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.