India has been watching the US presidential elections very closely and it has been amusing to note the nature of reaction in Indian media verse on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris becoming the President-elect and V-P elect respectively — that is if Donald Trump doesn’t pull off an unlikely surprise. Indian enthusiasm on Harris, an Indian-American, becoming the first female vice-president of the United States and shattering glass ceilings is understandable. It is a heart-warming story in which Indians somehow see themselves as participants.
However, the representational significance of Harris’s elevation, in terms of her gender, identity and ethnicity is an American story.
The outpouring of emotion in India on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter bears reminding that our vice-president is Venkaiah Naidu, and in Pratibha Patil, that glass ceiling for a female head of state has been broken long back. This lack of perspective is also evident in the way Indian mainstream and social media have (largely) interpreted the win for Biden-Harris ticket, as if Trump was standing between a close relationship between India and the US.
Trans-Atlantic and US liberal media’s hatred of Trump has had a cascading effect on media worldwide, setting global opinion. India is no exception. It is fashionable to denounce Trump, share memes and buy into the stereotypical tropes that western media reserve for Trump, and while that may have salience in US domestic politics, this conflation of Trump’s personality and policy is unhelpful in assessing the nature of India-US ties under the 45th US President. Trump’s character flaws make for great TV, but it is of no consequence in bilateral ties based on strategic convergence.
If anything, ties in security and defence domains reached new heights under Trump, and his tenure saw India formalize its partnership in US-led security architecture. Trade frictions and immigration remained persistent irritants, but the dissonance on those fronts was no hindrance to overall progress in ties and it certainly helped the relationship that the Trump administration was seen as non-interfering in Indian domestic politics and policies. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
India will work with whoever America chooses — and Modi’s tweets suggest that process has already begun — but the assumption, at this stage, is premature that Indo-US relationship will stay the course or be even better under Biden-Harris as has been predicted. Trump may have taken a torch to multilateral institutions and walked out of agreements harming America’s soft power, but to suggest he leaves behind a legacy of failure through his antics and character flaws, is a lazy generalization.
Trump, in effect, has been much better for Asia than Europe, a fact that finds little acknowledgement in analytical discourse.
As Greg Sheridan writes in The Australian, “Many of Trump’s most ardent critics… demonstrate the narrowly derivative and inadequate nature of their international outlook by slavishly replicating the trans-Atlantic critique of Trump, while displaying no appreciation of the Asian view. Of course, within Asia the Chinese don’t like Trump at all. But the five Asian nations that have stood most strongly for their national interests and against Chinese hegemonic tendencies in the region — Japan, India, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia — have all had a pretty productive experience of Trump.”
However, since Biden-Harris administration is now a reality, it’s worth exploring the ramifications in the bilateral arena of the political change of guard in the US. Off the bat, the overwhelming focus for the new administration would be mitigating the domestic political challenges, including a massive second wave of the pandemic. Between the virus, jobs and economy, Biden and Harris won’t find a lot of time to focus on India. For instance, Harris’s tweet at the beginning of the week on Monday lays down the focus areas for the administration in transition.
While in the short term this may translate into continuity, the long-term outlook of a Biden-Harris policy towards India will depend on a few key variables. Personnel is policy. Harris comes from a ‘progressive’ corner of the Democratic Party that is Marxist in new semantics, and her politics is of class struggle and group identities. The fact that her mother is Indian doesn’t mean that we have someone at the White House to look after India’s interests. As an elected representative, Harris’s primary duty is towards American people and the US Constitution. If anything, her Indian roots may place a weight on her to be objective about India, and this presents a set of challenges in bilateral ties.
Harris’s uncle G Balachandran, a policy wonk himself, reckons that his niece will be outspoken on issues and will speak out on Kashmir. We need not consider his opinion, but we should take what Harris says seriously. The US Senator from California is not known to be interested in foreign policy, but she has spoken out on Kashmir since India last year decided to read down Article 370 and withdraw Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
Apart from the fact that she was one among a number of Democrat lawmakers to do so, Harris, who was running her own campaign for Democratic nomination last year, on two occasions called for an interventionist strategy on Kashmir. Last October, asked about Kashmir during an event, she had said: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”
Last year, Harris also came out in support of fellow Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a trenchant critic of India’s Kashmir policy. External affairs minister S Jaishankar had refused to meet Jayapal after the US Congresswoman moved a resolution on Kashmir in House of Representatives, urging the Narendra Modi government to “end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents.”
Jaishankar was scheduled to meet US lawmakers on the sidelines of the 2+2 dialogue last year in Washington but pulled out of the meeting when members of the US Congress refused to exclude from their delegation Jayapal, a late entrant to the panel. Jayapal had also criticized India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, and Jaishankar felt that Jayapal’s position is not a “fair understanding of situation in J&K or fair characterization of what government of India is doing.”
It is tough to say whether Harris, in her new role as V-P, will stick to her earlier stand of being vocal about issues that are internal and sensitive to India, or adopt a more nuanced approach of talking “privately” and “constructively” to the government of India instead of seeking to embarrass New Delhi in public. Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at Carnegie, for one, believes that Biden-Harris administration won’t give India a “free pass” on “liberalism or the changing character of Indian democracy”.
Biden, too, in unveiling a policy paper for “Muslim Americans” in the run-up to his campaign had asked India to “restore” rights of Kashmiri citizens and had proclaimed that he “has been disappointed by the measures that the government of India has taken with the implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act into law.”
Some of it could be poll rhetoric meant for Biden’s Muslim constituency, but these are the things that are rarely forgotten. Biden has been a critical ally for India in his long career and his commitment in developing US-India ties since his days as a Senator in the 1970s, on civil-nuclear deal and counter-terrorism is a matter of record.
However, his tenure as president coincides with a turbulent time within the Democratic Party riven by deep differences between the moderates and the ‘progressives’.
Biden ran his campaign as a centrist, but it remains to be seen how much manoeuvring space he gets in a party that has taken a hard turn to the Left. The president-elect had a ringside view to the spectacle of Bernie Sanders faction undermining the chances of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and had to strike a Faustian deal with the ‘progressives’ to get over the finish line this time — rendering himself vulnerable to campaigns of internal pulls and pressures.
New York Times reports that the “progressive Left” faction has prepared an “an extensive blacklist for possible Biden appointees they do not like. They want to elevate allies like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to premier government posts. And they are even considering the possibility of bypassing Senate approval to fill executive branch roles.”
Now, what does this mean for Biden-Harris administration’s India policy? In a party divided along generational lines, the younger activists (who tilt almost wholly to the Left) may force Harris — if not Biden — into bringing identity politics and American culture wars in policy formations on issues such as human rights. And that may include adopting an interventionist posture on what the Democrat Left-wing claims to be India’s ‘shift away from liberal democratic credentials’ — a preview we have seen already in Biden’s policy paper on Muslim Americans.
One of the chief reasons, as stated above, behind the rapid development of India-US partnership — notwithstanding the role played by China — was that Trump administration moved away from the American habit of interfering in a fellow democracy’s sovereign decisions that are taken after due ratification from the Parliament. It could be Trump’s transactional politics than any commitment to higher ideals, but it suited India just fine.
As a democracy, India expects other nations to respect its sovereign decisions that reflect the will of the people, and is unlikely to humour any posturing from Biden-Harris administration on issues such as Kashmir or CAA. New Delhi may interpret any move on this front as an interference with its domestic policies — and one can be certain of pushback against such efforts instead of squirming of hands. New Delhi won’t see itself as answerable to biased interpretation of its internal policies if the US replaces realism in international relations with trappings of woke identity politics.
We have moved away from the post-Cold War era when pedagogic lessons from America on democracy and liberalism were seen as prescriptive for democracies around the world. The global power equation is not conducive for such posturing, and the US has lost any moral authority to deliver such sermons — not that India presents a legit case for such an intervention.
In the end, as the US and India reposition themselves in a transitional phase in international politics, the rise of China as a global power will ensure close synergy in strategic ties. With some care, that synergy may extend in trade relations and people-to-people connect as well. However, the new administration in the White House must resist the temptation to ‘fix’ Kashmir. It isn’t amorality, that may petrify Biden’s schmaltz-laden administration, just realism.