The President-elect has always espoused India's cause in the US and lobbied for Indian interests as an admirer of the world's largest democracy
If all goes well and President Donald Trump does not have his way in the courts, then on January 20, 2021 the White House would have a new occupant. President Trump will vacate the same to welcome President-elect Democrat Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America (POTUS). The US elections this time were followed worldwide because of the impact incumbent President Trump had over global geopolitics with his peculiar style of functioning.
Though Biden defeated him with a convincing majority, Trump is unhappy and making wild accusations of electoral fraud has approached the courts. In all fairness, Biden will succeed and Trump will have to concede. In the process Trump will be remembered as the first sitting POTUS who failed to secure a second term apart from his numerous controversial decisions. Biden will inherit an extremely divided US, a fallout of the “America First” policy of Trump. Soon, the process of transition will begin when the outgoing administration will hand over power to the transition team of Biden, who, too, will commence the process of announcing his trusted colleagues. The choice of members of his team will be the first indication of the mindset of the new POTUS with relation to burning domestic and global issues. Biden, more than experienced at 77, will not only decide the future of US citizens but would also have the capacity, capability, authority and responsibility to shape global destiny. It is no wonder then that in India as well the election was followed very closely as it has traditionally enjoyed a bipartisan relationship with the US.
Though change of presidency in the US has not made much of a difference in the past irrespective of the party in power, this time the situation is different because of the ongoing stand-off with an expansionist and aggressive China as well as certain controversies at home leading to polarisation.
The nomination of Senator Kamala Harris as a running mate by Biden created a concern in the power corridors in India due to her perceived anti-India stance and critical statements relating to abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Incidentally, both Biden and Harris have a connection with India but it is highly unlikely that it would have any effect on their policy-making or relations with us. However, one thing is certain, Biden is a friend of India and his track record from his early days as a Senator till his Vice- Presidency under Barack Obama bears testimony to this fact.
Trump has left many problems for the new Government and naturally, Biden will prioritise the sequence and manner in which he decides to resolve them. Going by the Democratic Party Platform (a document akin to manifesto) India is not in the priority list of the party. It refers to China, North Korea, Iran, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific but does not mention India specifically. However, the Democrats realised soon that ignoring India may cause them loss of critical Indian-American votes and the Biden campaign released a separate policy paper on Indo-US relations. Considering India’s strategic location dominating the Indian Ocean, its size and economy, no Government can afford to ignore it.
Significantly, Biden has always espoused India’s cause in the US and lobbied for its interests as an admirer of the world’s largest democracy. He has also been an advocate of deepening strategic engagement with India, cooperating with New Delhi on meeting global challenges as well as enhancing trade relations. He has remained a strong believer of the fact that India and the US are natural partners and had a stellar role to play in approving the US-India civil nuclear deal in 2008. It was during the Obama-Biden administration that the US, for the first time, declared its support for the permanent membership of India in an expanded and reformed United Nations Security Council. During the same administration, India was named as a “major defence partner,” making it eligible to be treated at par with closest US allies as regards advanced and sensitive technologies needed to strengthen our armed forces. There are fears that since more than 80 per cent American-Muslims voted in his favour, Biden’s policies may be pro-Muslim. However, any apprehension of the US interfering in Kashmir is highly unfounded as Biden and Harris have both spoken out against human rights violations and the Democrats have always been supportive of India on Kashmir. Though in his Agenda for Muslim-American Communities, Biden had condemned the Narendra Modi Government’s new citizenship Act and a separate attempt to build a population register that could provide future justification to expel or target foreigners, at the same time he had also committed to strengthening Indo-US ties.
“The US and India will stand together against terrorism in all its forms and work together to promote a region of peace and stability, where neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbours,” he wrote in an op-ed in an Indian-American newspaper in October. He is unlikely to change the American stance on Al Qaeda, the ISIS and other radical jihadi organisations. Significantly, the Modi Government’s action against many foreign-funded NGOs and banning of Amnesty International has not gone down well with many Democrats. There are bound to be differences of opinion on many issues just like during the Trump Administration, but mutual discussions would ensure that these do not affect the cooperation between the two nations on many critical issues of mutual importance.
China’s expansionist policies, trade and certain global problems like terrorism and climate change are the issues of concern for India. There is no doubt that on these issues the Biden administration and India will have convergence. It is unlikely that Biden will release the pressure built on China by the Trump Administration. But he favours a consensus-based approach in dealing with Beijing as compared to the confrontationist stance adopted by Trump.
Biden is in favour of strengthening the QUAD, the Indo-Pacific policy as well as providing support to Taiwan and Hong Kong. He wants to strengthen ties with US allies, too, meaning the NATO and countries like Australia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, proposing a grand Indo-Pacific Alliance. He has also committed to strengthening military cooperation between the US and India. It is important to note that both nations had signed three agreements for closer military cooperation in the backdrop of the growing tension with China under Trump. Biden has a very different approach to climate change which is likely to benefit India in terms of green funding.
As far as trade is concerned, Biden is going to be less obtrusive than Trump. India already enjoys a trade surplus with the US. It accounts for nearly five per cent of US’ services imports from the world, too. The US is the fifth-largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India and the Indian stock market is already showing a positive impact like the Wall Street.
There may not be much change in the H1-B visa regime but the information technology industry is likely to benefit. Despite good personal relations between Trump and Modi, the much-awaited trade deal between the two countries could not be finalised. Keeping in view the promised focus of Biden on rebuilding the Covid-hit economy of the US, chances of expecting any concessions appear dim.
Biden, however, had been an advocate of strengthening trade relations and India would expect restoration of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) benefits from his Government. However, it remains to be seen if the new administration uses the same as a leverage for its differences on certain issues with the Modi Government. Even Modi expressed the same hope in his congratulatory message to the President-elect. He tweeted, “As the (Vice President), your contribution to strengthening Indo-US relations was critical and invaluable. I look forward to working closely together once again to take India-US relations to greater heights.”
India has embarked on the path of Atmanirbhar Bharat to meet the challenges of a post-Covid era. Despite temptations and provocations, our nation has so far resisted joining any camp but instead has continued with its strategy of need-based bilateral or multilateral agreements in keeping with its national interests. We must continue on the same path.
(The author is a Jammu-based veteran, political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst)