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The US Presidential elections will take place in November, and this year’s results are unusually important to India. This reflects the fact that India has become a frontline state in America’s tussle with China. From an Indian perspective, there are clear pluses and minuses depending on who wins: Trump or Biden.
Despite a widespread feeling – partly engendered by hostile media – that Trump is an undependable ally purely focused on his selfish interests, it is arguable that he has been and would be better for Indian interests. While there are irritants — removal of preferential tariffs, the H1B mess — Trump’s foreign policy stance has not hurt India.
Trump has not started any new wars; he has successfully pushed for reconciliation in West Asia; and he has built a new alliance of democracies (the Quad: the US, Japan, Australia and India) to contain Chinese hegemonism.
Despite a widespread feeling – partly engendered by hostile media – that Trump is an undependable ally purely focused on his selfish interests, it is arguable that he has been and would be better for Indian interests.
The brokering of a sort of peace between Israel and Arab states such as the UAE and Bahrain (and possibly Saudi Arabia) means that India isn’t forced to choose between its friends in the region. The US embargo on Iran affects our Chabahar port investment and oil purchases, but then Iran is also edging close to China.
The Trump-generated bipartisan US consensus against China is a big plus for India, although the US will not come to India’s aid if actual war breaks out in Ladakh. We will be on our own. However, the links being created between naval assets of the Quad (e.g. the Malabar exercises) may help keep the Chinese navy at bay in the Indian Ocean.
Besides, there is the chance that some fraction of the manufacturing jobs that flee China will migrate to India (although there are indications that many MNCs are staying put). Presumably, there will also be additional FDI in India, as, after all, they too can see that a growing India is a tempting market (like the siren song of “1 billion Chinese”).
The Trump-generated bipartisan US consensus against China is a big plus for India, although the US will not come to India’s aid if actual war breaks out in Ladakh.
Overall, the Republican Party’s President Trump has been a net positive for India.
On the other hand, there is a widespread belief that Democratic Presidents are better for India, partly thanks to the propaganda efforts of the US Information Service. For instance, there was a black-and-white photo of John Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru walking in the White House garden in 1961. This used to grace the walls of practically every middle-class home in Kerala.
When I was living in the US, I too was attracted to the Democratic Party, with its positioning on immigrant rights, minority rights, eco-friendliness, and so on. Some 70% of Indian-Americans have traditionally voted for the Democrats. But over the years I realized that there were darker strands too: for instance, Democratic politicians often support rogue regimes like Pakistan and even China. I became more sympathetic to the Republican Party. And I am not alone.
With the dishonorable exception of Richard Nixon, whose declassified views on Indira Gandhi were racist, sexist and contemptuous of Indians, most recent Republican Presidents have helped India’s interests, though some of their vote banks are anti-India. Compared to this, the Democrats have been worse: Obama, Clinton et al were not India’s friends. Remember Madeleine Albright and Robin Raphel (who might become US envoy to India if Biden wins)?
A Biden Presidency would follow the old Democrat line. Biden and a slew of Democratic politicians such as Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna have been anti-India in the Article 370 revocation issue, as well as anti-CAA. Going back, the Biden Amendment in 1992 prevented the sale of Russian cryogenic engines to ISRO; combined with the Maldivian spy scandal, this delayed India’s commercial launches, and perhaps the Mars Mission, by 20 years.
The Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 was infiltrated by Pakistani interests (if you remember, Huma Abedin was in effect Hillary’s conscience keeper). The Biden campaign sidelined an Indian-American and brought in a Pakistani-American in a prominent role.
A Biden Presidency would follow the old Democrat line. Biden and a slew of Democratic politicians such as Ilhan Omar, Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna have been anti-India in the Article 370 revocation issue, as well as anti-CAA.
Besides, it’s possible that Chinese media and academic assets have an influence in the Biden campaign. There were earlier rumors of covert Chinese money injected into the Bill Clinton re-election campaign, and going by the meme of Russians trying to skew the votes in Trump’s favour in 2016, it stands to reason that Chinese would like to bring down Trump.
From the perspective of India’s national interests, a Trump re-election is preferable. And that is no longer an impossibility, as he has gained some momentum, and there is always the dreaded October Surprise — a Brahmastra that an incumbent can use against a challenger. That could be something to do with Hunter Biden, the somewhat problematic son of the candidate and with the latter’s personal intervention in Ukrainian affairs.
In a more extreme scenario, I wouldn’t put it past either Trump or China to do some brinkmanship that could lead to war. Action by China in the South China Sea or more mischief in the Taiwan straits could invite the none-too-reluctant US to jump in, and war is usually good for a sitting President’s ratings.
Mindful of this, China will probably concentrate its pressure on the Himalayan front in Tibet and assume that an election-distracted Trump would pay no attention if war broke out there. There is a danger for India in that event. But there are reasons to think that a more China-friendly Biden administration would be even worse for India.
US Presidents are elected to protect their country’s interests. Whoever wins, India needs to be aware of that priority. If Biden wins, India has to deal with it but given the experience of the last four years, it would be better for India if Trump were re-elected. This has nothing to do with personalities, only with cold, hard realpolitik.