US Elections: Impact on US-India relations

Win for Trump or Biden: India faces Hobson’s choice

Politics

November 4, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

US Elections: Impact on US-India relations

Besides close personal rapport, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also share similar views on human rights

On November 4 once the winner of the United States Presidential Elections 2020 is known, India may find little to cheer about, irrespective of who the occupant of the White House for the next four years may be.

For long the United States Presidential Elections bring about change not just within the United States, but its ripples are indeed felt all over the globe even when the incumbent wins another term.

Thus, the mandarins in New Delhi would also be watching the proceedings closely as Americans decide whether they have had enough of the most maverick and controversial President or if they want to have him back for four more unpredictable and uncertain years.

However, unlike the US citizens or even unlike the Chinese President Xi Jinping who would be hoping to see the back of his bète noire, Trump, India may not have the luxury of choosing sides as both the potential outcomes may come to bite the country in general and the Narendra Modi government in particular.

Hits & misses with Trump

The last four years of US-India ties have been very eventful, to say the least. On many fronts, the two countries have made significant progress and now have similar or converging views on several issues notably in the domain of defence and foreign policies. In this context, the 2+2 format of bilateral dialogue that began under the watch of Trump and Modi in 2018.

Indeed, in the third edition of this innovative format of discussion, held last week, several key agreements were signed and signalled a much closer bilateral relationship than could have been envisaged even five years ago. Identifying a common threat in China, India and the US have jointly organised several military exercises on land, in air and in the seas. The two have also roped in other nations like Japan and Australia in relaunching the Quad – or four nation exercises that are held annually. The US has also promised latest weaponry to India as the country faces an increasingly belligerent China on its northern borders.

But even though Trump and Modi enjoy a great personal equation and close rapport, the US President has never given a second thought to taking decisions that hurt or embarrass India. Just as with Europe and China, Trump spent the last four years in attacking India for its ‘closed markets and high import tariffs’ and insisted on receiving immediate gratification in terms of rapid cut in tariffs, which the Modi government duly obliged him with.

While he was busy getting the Indian markets opened to more US products like Harley Davidson bikes or US farm products, Trump did not blink an eye before imposing dramatic curbs on H1B visas, used for skilled employees and of which India has traditionally been the biggest beneficiary and which play a major role in India’s ITES exports that stood at about USD 87 billion last year and of which the US market itself accounts for about 50 pc.

Trump and Modi also don’t see eye to eye on the burning issue of climate change and global warming. At the Paris climate change meet in 2015, Modi, along with his then French counterpart Francois Hollande, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, had stitched up an unlikely deal called Paris Agreement. However, last year Trump decided to walk out of the Agreement criticising the high costs that it imposed on the US economy and calling global warming a product of the environment lobby’s imagination.

This has put serious question mark on the fate of the agreement as the US walkout has also encouraged some other major pollutants like Australia to walk out of the deal. This has weakened an agreement that was not seen as being enough to save the planet from a climate catastrophy.

Challenges of a Biden Presidency

The ruling Republican party has refused to utter a single word against Modi’s policies especially vis a vis his trampling of freedom of expression, human rights, free media and the targeting of Muslims in India over the past four years. Even though several Congressional leaders and bodies like the USCIRF have named and shamed India on these issues, Trump, mainly due to his own personal beliefs on these issues, has preferred to look the other way.

However, it is unlikely that the Democrats will remain mute spectators or turn a blind eye to the unsavoury developments in India. Several Democrat representatives have already been very critical of Modi and his policies and with a Democrat in the White House pressure on Modi to change his policies and politics will increase tremendously as the Democrats are unlikely to shy away from telling India where it stands.

One example was the ticking off that Modi received from Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in January 2015 over the controversial ghar wapsi (religious conversion of minorities) campaign that had been mounted by Hindu fundamentalists while the government either tacitly backed it or turned a blind eye to the forceful conversions of minorities, read Muslims, to Hinduism. Just before he left for the airport in New Delhi, at the end of the visit,  Obama spoke his mind on religious tolerance. “No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men and too often, religion has been used to tap into those instead of the light of God. Every person has the right to practice any faith or none as he chooses without the fear of prosecution,” Obama said.

A Democrat in the White House will definitely not sit by and watch on moves like the recent decision by human rights organisation Amnesty International to close its India offices after the government very controversially froze its accounts. Similarly, the situation in Jammu & Kashmir as well as the various incidents of Muslims being lynched by cow vigilantes or being jailed by the Bharatiya Janata Party government for trying to raise the issue of discrimination is likely to attract a strong response from the White House.

Also, Biden is likely to continue the collaboration with India in defence and foreign policy and may be less unpredictable and more amenable to international positions on trade and climate change. He may also be more sympathetic to the need of H1B visas for US companies and their importance in helping the US retain its lead in frontier technology areas which is getting narrowed down rapidly as an aggressive China pushes ahead in the domain.

Biden’s policies are unlikely to be very different from Trump on issues like intellectual property rights, notably for the US pharmaceutical companies, or the tendency of Modi to help Indian businesses by tweaking the rules, even unfairly, at the cost of business interests of the foreign companies, notably US companies.

All in all, Modi and to some extent India has a Hobson’s choice in the outcome of one of the most crucial elections that the world may see in a decade.

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