The Americans are heading into one of the most crucial election nights in years. There’s so much at stake for the US, as well as the globe. The Republicans want President Donald Trump to return to power and the Democrats want him out.
But for so much uncertainty about what happens this week, there is relative clarity about what the electoral outcome could mean for India. Incumbent President Trump faces Joe Biden, the former vice president as rival candidate in the polls. Both have said they want strong relations with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also has experience of working with both the Democrats—Barack Obama administration—and the Republican under the current Trump administration.
India Today spoke with Dhruva Jaishankar, the director of the US Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), who unpacks the India-US relations and explains what the electoral outcome could mean for India going forward. Edited excerpts:
India Today: Why is the US election important for India?
Dhruva Jaishankar: The election is important for two broad reasons. One is the bilateral relationship. The US is India's single-most important external relationship, and it’s not just about security and defence, but also about global cooperation and finance.
A large number of Indian students study in the US, and a large number of Indian companies are based there. There’s also scientific research and collaboration between the countries. Take all of that together, and the US emerges as India’s single most important relationship. For that reason alone, I think the political outcome of a US election ought to be of importance to India.
The second element is that it is not so much the US policy [as the two candidates have spelt out in their campaign speeches] towards India that is at stake in this election. Broadly speaking, both candidates have indicated that they would like to strengthen the US-India relationship, even if their priorities are different. Neither is running on an anti-India platform. That’s not true of the US policy [as Trump and Biden have spelt out] towards other countries like China or Russia or even the US’s allies, where there’s a big difference of opinion.
But what does matter for India is, in some ways, the secondary effects of other policies. Joe Biden and Donald Trump have very different worldviews when it comes to how to deal with China or Russia or Iran or Afghanistan, or how to deal with trade and immigration, and so on. These policies aren’t trying to help or hurt India, but India will be very directly affected by the outcome of their different policies.
IT: A recent article mentioned that Prime Minister Modi stands to gain if President Trump returns to power. How much does India care about who wins the election?
DS: I'm of the view that individual personalities at the leadership level don't matter as much. But I think larger structural factors, particularly in democracies, are more at play in bringing India and the US together.
You've had some unlikely partners like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Bill Clinton, Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush, Narendra Modi and Barack Obama. The US-India relationship has progressed under leaders who are unlike each other. The ties have grown deeper because of the economic relationship, the shared concerns about China, and the shared attitudes towards terrorism.
The Indian American community has also had a role to play. They’ve led to very popular views about the US and India, even when much of the rest of the world has less popular views about the US. So, I think those factors are much more responsible for the US and India developing a closer partnership.
IT: But President Trump has been an unusual US president, and India did well to manage his leadership style..
DS: I think a lot of other countries around the world are not prepared for the possibility of Trump winning the election. They didn't think it was in 2016. But a lot of countries made attempts to try and play to things that Trump wanted or liked. He likes big crowds. He wanted quick deals that were politically saleable at home. I don't think India was alone in this. But that didn’t mean that India always got its way, say, on trade. But I certainly think that [accommodating Trump’s style of diplomacy] helped see a steady improvement over the last four years.
IT: What changes can we expect if Joe Biden comes to power?
DS: There'll be a very different shift of emphasis. One, there is some uncertainty as to what the Biden administration's China policy will look like. And, that's because different advisors have different views. Some are saying that they will continue a lot of Trump's policies or they would like to see a lot of Trump's policies continued.
Others are suggesting a slightly different route. So, I think there's some uncertainty in that aspect. I think a second, though a reduced, concern is return to some sort of equivalency between India and Pakistan. Now, I don't think that will happen because other factors are at play. The other concern that has been cited is the issue of religious freedom in India and pluralism in India. That is quite clearly the bigger issue for Democrats than it is for Republicans.
A few things, one, public criticism by a Democrat presidency will be moderated because they understand that there's a larger relationship there [between India and the US]. There may be more criticism from the US Congress, particularly if the Democrats take control of the Senate. And, some of it will be quite rhetorical.
A lot of the criticism is also driven—this is something that doesn't get a lot of attention—by their own voter-base as well. So, it is not purely idealistic. It is driven by voter considerations as well. Finally, on that score, it's unlikely to be the defining factor in US-India relations.
IT: How is the threat from China deepening India-US ties? Does this also mean India is openly choosing sides?
DS: The India-China boundary dispute is flaring not because of India's picking sides between China and the US. It's happening because China and India have a fundamental difference on the boundary. And, India's concerns about China's activity in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region are directly impinging upon Indian security concerns. It's not American security concerns.
India's trade disputes with China, again, is a bilateral issue. It's China that's blocking India's membership in multilateral organisations like the UN Security Council (UNSC), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and so on. So, India and China have their differences. And, that is naturally leading to greater cooperation between the US and India.
IT: What may the foreign policy priorities of Trump and Biden look like?
DS: One, this has not been much of a foreign policy election at all. This year, 90 per cent of the bandwidth is really going to be on domestic policy. Insofar as foreign policy will feature, it will be linked to domestic policy. In that sense, it will be linked to trade, jobs, and cooperation on climate change.
But, the number one foreign policy issue is China, then Russia, the Middle East and Europe. India will be seen in those contexts. There is a positive view about India amongst Republicans and Democrats. And, both have said that they would like to improve the partnership with India. So, I expect India to be a low priority.
We may see no real statements about India for the first six months no matter who wins. By the end of next year, we will have some idea about what the new administration’s Asia policy will look like. And, within that, where and to what extent India will figure.