By Frank F Islam
It can do business with both Trump and Biden. But the latter will be a more friendly interlocutor, steady partner
Earlier this month, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden’s opponent to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States (US), announced that he was suspending his campaign. This means that Biden will be the Democratic candidate for President. Biden has since got support from former president Barack Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren, herself a former presidential candidate.
All this is good news for Biden. This is also good news for India. That is the case because if Biden was to win the presidency, the future for India-US relations would be on solid ground. If Sanders had stayed in the race, managed to win the nomination, and gone on to win the presidency, those relations would have been on shaky ground.
Sanders does not have a strong history of support for India or substantial foreign policy experience as a senator. More important, during his campaigning, he was critical of some key policy measures of the Narendra Modi administration.
By contrast, former vice-president (V-P) Biden is a long-time friend of India with a stellar track record in the foreign policy arena. And, to date, he has not made any major negative public pronouncements about India’s government. Biden is best known for the manner in which he served for eight years as the “aide-de-camp” for President Barack Obama, acting as his lead person and a key consultant on numerous issues, both domestic and foreign. He distinguished himself as someone who could facilitate communications, construct compromises, and build consensus among those with varying interests.
As part of his portfolio, Biden worked diligently to promote and advance Obama’s vision of a “defining partnership” between India and the US. He and his wife Jill visited India in 2013 when the V-P, according to the White House, “…set out an ambitious vision for the US-India relationship, looking not just at the months ahead or the years, but the decades ahead”. Biden had India on his radar screen and best interests in mind before joining Barack Obama in 2009. When he was a senator and chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was an advocate for the successful passage of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.
Sanders voted against that bill in 2008. More recently, in 2020, Sanders has spoken out against India’s Kashmir policy, its enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the country’s treatment of its Muslim minority. Congressman Ro Khanna, an Indian-American, was co-chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign. He has also been critical of India’s human rights policies and has joined the Congressional Pakistan Caucus. This is more evidence that Sanders in the White House would have been problematic for India’s relations with the US.
This brings the presidential match-up for the election to be held on November 3 between Biden and Donald Trump — who is running for re-election basically unopposed in the Republican Party. That match-up is welcome news for India.
In Biden and Trump, whoever occupies the Oval Office on January 20, 2021, India will be dealing with two known leaders. Trump, even with his mercurial and unpredictable behaviour, currently appears to be the preferred candidate of New Delhi, symbolised by the “Howdy Modi” spectacle in Houston in September and “Namaste Trump” show in Ahmedabad in February.
But there should be caution regarding the future of bilateral relations with the US with Trump as president going forward. While Trump can be counted on to stand silent on “internal matters” in India such as Kashmir, he cannot be relied upon to speak authentically or to keep his word on important issues such as getting a trade deal done.
Biden, on the other hand, might say things about India’s handling of issues central to a vital and vibrant democracy such as immigration, equal opportunity, pluralism, and the free press, but he will do so in a diplomatic manner. One variable that will come into play for India will be the status of the coronavirus pandemic when the election is held. It is far too early to speculate on the nature of that condition now.
What can be said at this point in time is that Trump has minimised the role of the federal government in confronting the pandemic in the US, stating that it is up to the state and local governments to take the lead. Biden as president would put much greater emphasis on the federal leadership.
Another difference that will impact India is that the Trump administration’s approach to managing the pandemic is and will be isolationist, as evidenced by the closing down of America’s borders to other countries early on and not taking outside assistance in areas such as testing when the pandemic first struck the US. Biden, as president, will be an internationalist looking to bring countries together to confront the consequences of the coronavirus and to leverage resources to benefit all nations.
Indians will not get to vote for the next president of the US. But Indian-Americans will. They should keep those distinct differences in style and behaviour in mind when they cast their ballots. I know that I will and that is why I am glad that Biden will be the Democratic candidate for president. That is good for both my motherland, India and my homeland, the US.