Trump or Biden? Dilemma for India
On November 3, Americans will decide whether to give another four years to Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, or to give the Oval Office to former vice-president Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate. Their collective decision will impact the world and India in particular. For those who are not familiar with the American electoral system, it is not the popular votes that decide the winner, but an electoral college representing all states. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency because of his superior Electoral College tally, despite losing to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly three million popular votes.
In context of American Presidentil elections, Frank F Islam writes on Indialegallive that “As with nearly all presidential elections of the past 20 years, this one will be determined by fewer than 10 key “swing” states. That is because most states are either strongly Democratic, such as California, New York and Massachusetts, or solidly Republican, such as South Dakota, Alabama and Mississippi. The swing states, this year, include Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These are the states where both the Trump and Biden campaigns will be spending the bulk of their resources and time over the next few weeks.”
If the media reports are to be believed, then, the most recent polls show Trump trailing Biden by a sizeable margin of 7-8 points nationally and by a slightly lower margin in most of the swing states. In large part, these poll results showing Biden ahead are attributable to Trump’s stewardship of the country during his tenure in office. And most especially his flawed performance during this election year on the so called bread and butter issues of health care and the economy. The president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic raised serious questions within the electorate about his competence.
It is no secret that in order to protect the stock market, Trump went into campaign mode and told Americans that the virus was not a threat. Even after the virus began to escalate in terms of cases and deaths in March and April, Trump constantly underplayed its magnitude, fearing that it might jeopardise the economy—the primary issue he was planning to run his re-election campaign on. Trump was absolutely wrong about the impact of the coronavirus but correct about its impact upon the economy. The US economy collapsed after the outbreak of the coronavirus intensified and 22 million people lost their jobs in March and April alone. Despite Congress’s pumping in over $2 trillion to address the coronavirus’ effect, more than half of those jobs have not come back and the economic recovery remains painfully slow.
Biden has vowed to shepherd America through the health crisis and guide the economy out of the current recession. He has some credibility in this regard as former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was passed while Biden was Obama’s vice-president. And, Biden played a leadership role in guiding America’s recovery from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.
Trump for India or not
Trump, unlike Biden, who has a sophisticated understanding of world politics, Trump entered the presidency with a set of simplistic views about the world. Once in office he used his vast prerogatives to upend a range of commitments and policies which had, for the most part, enjoyed support across American ideological divides. To that end he withdrew from Nafta, from the Paris climate change accords and even questioned the utility of Nato, a virtual cornerstone of American security policy since the early days of the Cold War.
Nor for that matter, despite his seeming bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has he displayed much sensitivity and finesse in dealing with India. His inept dealings with India are especially shocking given the attention that Modi had lavished on him at events in Ahmedabad and in Houston, Texas.
He has placed tariffs on a range of Indian goods, through an executive order he has frozen H-1B and H-4 (spousal visas) until the end of the year, and he has sermonized India to reduce tariffs on trivial American exports such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He seems unaware that a mere 4,000 or so are sold in India annually and that the firm employs no more than 5,000 workers in the US.
Nor, for that matter have his statements on critical, sensitive issues of Indian foreign and security policy displayed any dexterity. In the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack and its aftermath he offered to mediate the Kashmir dispute. Worse still, he stated, without a shred of evidence, that Modi had asked him to offer his good offices. Not content with this row, in the wake of the Galwan valley PLA incursions and the ensuing standoff, he again offered to help settle the dispute.
His willingness to start a trade war with India and his ham-handed attempts to burnish his credentials as, a negotiator aside, Trump has also shrunk the scope of the US-India partnership. Under both Democratic and Republican predecessors, the relationship had been multi-dimensional ranging from cooperation in counterterrorism to jointly combating child trafficking. Under Trump’s watch the focus has been primarily on the security arena with two issues being accorded foremost importance – weapons sales to New Delhi, and prodding it to serve as a counterweight to the PRC. In effect, his view of the relationship is almost wholly transactional. India is of no intrinsic value to the United States, in the eyes of Trump.
Biden for India or not
Despite his excellent record as a Senator and holding varied offices, Joe Biden has been at the receiving end of the criticism of the Indian analysts. Biden and his running mate kamala Harris have expressed concerns about the state of human rights in Kashmir. In September 2019, Harris was asked about the unrest in Kashmir during a campaign event for her own presidential bid. She stated that “we are all watching,” and she implicitly attacked the Modi government’s handling of the issue up to that point by calling out human rights abuses inflicted by India. This was a relative rarity among the pool of candidates at the time; other than Harris, those who made statements on the issue were Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But Harris’s ethnic heritage—her mother was an Indian immigrant to the United States—gave her stance more weight among Indian Americans. The Indian American community has had mixed political views in recent years—though many of them pulled the lever for Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they did so while backing much more nationalistic parties in India.
Harris also got involved in another U.S.-India scuffle over Kashmir a few months later. In December 2019, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, visited the United States for meetings with the administration along with congressional leaders. One of the meetings with House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel ended up being canceled, however, since the meeting would have included Pramila Jayapal, another Indian American lawmaker who holds very strong views about Kashmir.
Jayapal planned to introduce a resolution in early December in the House of Representatives in which she urged the Indian government to end the internet restrictions within Kashmir, address mass imprisonment, and more. As a result of this resolution, Jaishankarmade it clear that he didn’t want to meet Jayapal, but Engel wouldn’t allow the meeting without her presence and so it never happened. Harris decried Jaishankar’s actions and went out of her way to stand with Jayapal, further signifying a willingness to criticize the Indian government.
But while Harris and Jayapal draw more attention because of their ethnicity, a Biden administration is likely to take a tough stance if he wins the presidency this November—especially compared to the one under President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reportedly didn’t mention Kashmir a single time in an Aug. 6 phone call with Jaishankar. Former Vice President Biden himself has also been willing to criticize Indian political decisions. On his “ Agenda for Muslim-American Communities,” Biden stated that the “Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir” and, further, that restrictions akin to the ones seen in the region weaken democracy.
Kashmir is not the only issue where Biden has raised concerns much more so than those ever raised by his former boss Barack Obama. Biden has also strongly objected to the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the National Register of Citizens—both projects of the Modi-led government that critics lament will make it easier to discriminate against and ultimately kick out Muslims from India. Biden is clearly more willing to criticize allies than his old boss was. And that leaves open the question of the future of the Indian American vote. Traditionally, this highly educated group votes strongly Democratic—but they are also often Modi supporters. Modi has made no secret of his love for Trump, and the inverse is true as well—each hosted the other at massive rallies in Gujarat and Texas, respectively. However, the increasingly nationalistic policy tacks of Trump and the Republican Party make a political switch unlikely. A Biden administration may not turn a blind eye to Modi—but it’s also very likely to lift the Trumpian visa and immigration restrictions that hit Indian American lives directly.
Despites one’s own political inclinations, Joe Biden seems to be beneficial for India. He is a seasoned politician with over half a century of political expertise to his credit at Capitol Hill. He has been instrumental in the rapprochement towards India following the Pokhran-II tests and played a significant role in further enhancing trade relations and the US-India Civil Nuclear Deal. The Obama-Modi bonhomie was a rather resolute one and was proactive in its effects. Other than large ostentatious displays of power in Ahmedabad and Houston, the Trump-Modi friendship failed to improve ties in the way they projected their fervent cooperation. It was an utter waste of resources and nothing else. Trade relations are rather strained, and Trump never wastes an opportunity to condemn India for rapid industrialization. Words are hollow, Actions are definitive. His White Supremacist and anti-Islamic propaganda is against India’s popular required interests. Large rallies without thousands of people display delirious outlooks, not an action-oriented strategy.
The robust US economy is currently facing its greatest slump since the time of the Great Depression in view of COVID-19. The repression offered by brutal policing towards the Black Lives Matter Movement is condemnable and the inaction and lies on the Pandemic, are simply dementia, but worse dangerous to the lives of millions. America needs stability, it needs hope, it needs growth. Only when America is in a decently strong position, can we consider it in a position to support India in preventing the rise of a Tyrannic China, and further co-operate in defense, space, trade, and climate. Biden is the only one who will have the ability to reform America.
Whether Biden or Trump, pro-India policy of the US is very unlikely to change as rather than India, it is the US that needs this friendship more. With their involvement in the Middle East nearing an end, particularly in Afghanistan, the strategic need of Pakistan for the US is almost zero. With the increased hostility with China and involvement in the South China Sea, the US needs India as it is the only other regional power in the Indo-Pacific. With India’s ongoing confrontation on the LAC, the US and India interests are unified in this aspect. Indian-Americans play a large role in US development and IT industries and are a valuable skilled labour asset to the US. India is a large market with a large economy and similar democratic foundations as the US. As long as US-China relations are strained, or rather until India really begins to reach a super-power stage in another 20 years, and maybe severe competition to the US in terms of economy, India doesn’t have to worry about strained ties with the US.
Biden will simply satisfy India’s interests as he will provide revival to a country which is seeing dark times, something truly Trump will fail to do. US’s strength would be India’s benefit in the current scenario. Greater Economic Cooperation will change the dynamic. Indo-US Alliance has the potential to become the most important of the 21st Century.
By Nilabh Krishna