Why Biden will be a better ally for India than Trump

By Pratik Sharma

With a divisive, xenophobic, hyper-nationalistic and an ultra-conservative election campaign, Trump promised to Make America Great Again in 2016. He was successful in striking a chord with millions of Americans whose lives or preferences have suffered due to the development of global trade, Chinese exports, technology and liberalisation over the past decades. Trump amassed authoritative loyalty, apparent in many of his statements, eg. “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”.

Trump administration prioritised an ‘inward-looking – America first’ rhetoric against the long-established ‘leading from the front’ strategy, with a primary focus on photo opportunities, announcements and deals which could be bragged about as ‘big wins for America’ delivered exclusively by Trump.

PM Modi recognised Trump’s photo-op needs, read his approach, and moved in early to be successful in having Trump like him. But while the two leaders exchanged deep hugs and long handshakes for the cameras, India was unable to buy oil from Iran (10 per cent of India’s supply) due to sanctions imposed by the US. 

Trump referred to India as a “filthy country”, thousands of Indian professionals suffered from stringent H1B visa rules, and India was directly caught in the friction with China’s assertive quest to take pole position in global leadership.

The Trump administration not only pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord (jeopardising associated benefits to India), but also did not appear to intervene in critical events around India, often citing them as domestic matters of a country — such as the abrupt removal of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan’s PM in 2017, allegedly at the behest of the Pakistani army, or the escalations between India and Pakistan during Balakot and Uri strikes. 

Speaking to the press for the first time after his victory night speech, Joe Biden reflected upon his phone conversations with major world leaders: “I’m letting them know that America is back. We’re going to be back in the game.” This positioning is a clear departure from the current status under Trump, though the extent to which Biden is willing to restore the American global leadership remains uncertain.

With his 47 years of experience and an eight-year term as the Vice President, Biden understands the global diplomatic, economic and military challenges.

From an Indian perspective, Biden led the US Senate’s approval for the Indo-US nuclear deal and several anti-terrorism legislations. He has actively supported the removal of US sanctions on India and also advocated for India to have a ‘seat at the high table’ on the global arena, including in his latest election manifesto. 

While Trump administration’s perceived tough stance on Pakistan provides comfort to Indian interests, it is in fact a lighter version of Joe Biden’s 2009 act in Congress which proposed a further harsher policy. Biden’s proposal did not just call for Pakistan to end support to terrorism and Taliban, but for the Pakistani President to certify zero interference of the military in political affairs. 

As far as Pakistan is concerned, Biden knows what he is dealing with and is expected to continue with a pragmatic approach.

In recent times, it is the rise of a common concern with China that has drawn the two countries to come closer on strategy. Though under Biden, India can expect to reach out to a more open-minded, globally-oriented power to seek assistance on issues with Pakistan and China, it cannot expect that US interests will always share a common concern.

In order for India to gain long term US patronage, we need to consciously develop a significant volume of economic, technological, cultural connections.

However, we should not expect the Biden administration to turn a blind eye towards India’s domestic affairs, particularly pertaining to the aspects of minorities, Kashmir and diversity.

Now with Kamala Harris as the Vice President and other key democratic members as part of the Biden government, India should expect resistance to its own hyper-nationalistic initiatives such as CAA, NRC, and Article 370.

Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State and Defense Chief Mark Esper paid a visit to India (a month ago) during the presidential election in the US and remarked, “The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty.” 

These recent encouraging economic and diplomatic developments will need to be backed with the clear political will to shy away from the ambiguous ‘non-aligned’ approach and making a conscious choice to truly connect with a superpower.

After all, how long can you be the reluctant bride?

(The article appeared in DailyO)

Image courtesy of (File photo)

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