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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 48, New Delhi, November 14, 2020

Biden’s victory a sign of warning for Narendra Modi | Arun Srivastava

Friday 13 November 2020, by Arun Srivastava


by Arun Srivastava

In electing Biden, the American people have replaced a real estate developer and a self-seeker reality TV actor with a veteran and pragmatic politician with more than 50 years in public life. After four years of despotic rule the Americans must be feeling relieved. They yearned for getting rid of this comic and regressive administration is clearly manifest in unprecedented huge turnout of the voters. Their coming out in large number was simply a repudiation of a president who shattered democratic norms, tore apart the social and cultural lives of the people.

It was incredulous to see that even after being aware that the person was a blot on the human face and even the Americans were frustrated with his freak behaviours ironically many of the state heads preferred to become his chum. After all a person is known from the company he keeps. Even on the day when the ballots were being counted, he did not refrain from his erratic actions of accusations of voter fraud to falsely argue the Biden camp was trying to seize power. Unable to reconcile to the idea of losing power he resorted to all kinds of nasty white lies. Even on Friday, Trump exclaimed on Twitter that he had “easily” won the presidency “with legal votes cast”. “The observers were not allowed, in any way, shape, or form, to do their job and therefore, votes accepted during this period must be determined to be illegal votes. US Supreme Court should decide!” he said.

His supporters, especially Hindu Americans were quite aggrieved at the development and did not hesitate in standing by him even in this hours of wisdom. For them their Rightist friend was speaking the truth, nothing but truth. In contrast, Joe Biden, on his part, tried to ease tensions, calling for the counting of each ballot before the results are announced. “Power can’t be taken or asserted,” he said. “It flows from the people. And it’s their will that determines who will be the president of the United States, and their will alone.”

With most contentious and consequential US presidential elections concluding just a day ahead the nature and character of India’s relation with America under Biden has gained sudden importance. Never in the past had the Indio-US relation acquired such an importance after the election of a new president as it has attained this time. The reasons are obvious. During the last four year rule of Republicans, India did not a bipartisan relation with the USA, instead, it maintains personal relations with US president Donald Trump.

Indian rulers nursed the impression that being a personal friend of Trump would make the entire America dance to its tune. They did not even realise that their actions were pushing India away from the USA. India and Indians never tried to reflect on their relationship, to better understand the dynamic, and perhaps to see what the future may hold for them.

American diplomacy does not function at the whim of a leader, it is a sort of doctrine. It works within and follows certain parameters. India for the USA has been a precious partner and this will continue to hold true. It is the guarantee that it will be courteous to India, even after Indian bureaucrats rebuke and rebuff the critics those who matter in the USA administration. The past government had resorted to pragmatic rebalancing by anticipating and adjusting to changing circumstances.

We never had a cordial relation with China. But it was not so strained either as we notice in the present times. A closer look would make it explicit that Indian government did not strain its relations with China for the sake of the interest of the country, instead it was done to appease Trump. India takes for granted the bi-partisan consensus in the US Congress on India-US relations. This consensus was manifested in the four-fifth vote in favour of the nuclear deal by both the Republican-controlled House and Senate in 2006 and the Democratic-controlled House and Senate in 2008. Incidentally at that point of time the BJP leadership had levelled allegation of surrendering India’s sovereignty to the US. Astonishingly the same deal was appreciated and eulogised in 2017 when Narendra Modi termed the nuclear deal as the “centre-piece” of India-US ties after his first meeting with Donald Trump and imparted a new impetus to the partnership. This turned out to be a pious deal under Trump.

There is no reason to believe that Joe Biden will break away with the policy of successive US Presidents of having deeper, better ties with India. But like all Presidents, he is likely to have his own style and nuances. But the question, will Joe Biden be good for India can be and will be answered by olnly one person and he is the prime minister, Narendra Modi. Every Indian is looking forward to an answer to this question. The reason is very simple; in his pursuit to be identified as the most trusted friend of Donald Trump, he has according to his personal nature, has decried and overruled all kind of democratic functioning. It be good in the interest of India that Joe Boden would have forgotten Modi’s desperate appeal to the Indian diaspora to elect the despot once again, violating all the diplomatic norms. Modi’s slogan “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar” at the Howdy Modi event in Houston last year was in fact criticized by the opposition for creating possible trouble for India if a Democrat nominee made it to the White House. But he preferred to ignore.

Much before he became Vice President in the Barack Obama administration, Biden had advocated a stronger relationship with India. Biden played an important role, both as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as Vice President, in systematically deepening strategic engagement with India. In fact, in 2006, three years before he became the Vice-President of the US, Biden had announced his vision for the future of US-India relations: “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States”. Yes it did happen, but in true sense India became a lackey of the USA in 2020 under Trump instead of being a bipartisan ally. It undertook the task to involve in the proxy war with China and other countries for Trump, not for the USA.

Yet again while Senator Obama was initially hesitant to support the Indo-US nuclear deal, Biden led the charge and worked with both Democrats and Republicans, to approve the nuclear deal in the US Congress in 2008. During that time, the US officially declared its support for India’s membership in a reformed and expanded United Nations Security Council. This had been a key demand of successive Indian governments, which was fulfilled by Washington during Biden’s term as VP.

Trump administration has been extremely vocal in India’s support in the last six months of the border-stand-off with China, but it was aimed at serving the USA interest more than actually helping the Indian cause. In fact Trump did nothing to help India. In contrast the campaign document of Biden mentions “ a Biden Administration will work with India to support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbours with impunity”.

He has promised to support family-based immigration, increase the number of visas offered for permanent, work-based immigration, reform the temporary visa system for high-skill, specialty jobs, eliminate the limits on employment-based green cards. He has also promised to restore the naturalisation process for green card holders. As the Trump administration has tightened the rules, it may not be very easy for Biden to reverse some of the approaches adopted in the last four years.

The major concern for India would be his attitude towards the human rights issues, especially since Kamala Harris — his Vice-President — is a fierce advocate for human rights. Biden’s reservations about India’s approach to Kashmir issue is a well known fact But with Democrats in power, the Indian government can expect some tough statements from the Biden administration on these issues.

Biden has been “disappointed by the measures that the Government of India has taken with the implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act into law”. The campaign’s policy paper said; “As the world’s oldest and largest democracies, the United States and India are bound together by our shared democratic values: fair and free elections, equality under the law, and the freedom of expression and religion. These core principles have endured throughout each of our nations’ histories and will continue to be the source of our strength in the future”.

Modi in his congratulatory messages tp Joe Biden and Kamala Harris has been cryptic. “Congratulations @JoeBiden on your spectacular victory! As the VP, your contribution to strengthening Indo-US relations was critical and invaluable. I look forward to working closely together once again to take India-US relations to greater heights”. ‘Congratulations @JoeBiden on your spectacular victory! As the VP, your contribution to strengthening Indo-US relations was critical and invaluable,’ the PM tweeted.

In another tweet, the Prime Minister congratulated Harris: “Heartiest congratulations @KamalaHarris! Your success is pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans. I am confident that the vibrant India-US ties will get even stronger with your support and leadership.” None can deny that element of warmth was missing.

How Modi Government plans to Strengthen India-US Partnership in the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris Era is worth watching. Sensing the mood on the ground, India has been preparing for a possible change in the White House. It is worth watching the role of Democrat leader of Indian-origin Pramila Jaypal who has also been re-elected to the US Congress. This one relationship has not particularly been good for the Indian government. The discomfort level was aggravated by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar by refusing to meet a group of Congress members last year during his US visit because of Jaypal who introduced a resolution urging India to lift restrictions in Kashmir post the abrogation of Article 370.

Jaishankar later said, “I am aware of that resolution. I don’t think it is fair understanding of the situation in J&K or fair characterization of what the Government of India is doing. I have no interest in meeting her.” As a seasoned diplomat he should have met the group and put his point ofview. By refusing he insulted the group members and given the idea of suspicion; as to why he was not taking the call. It is worth mentioning that Democratic presidential aspirants at that time Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had backed Jayapal. So did senator Kamala Harris. Harris also said that they are watching the situation in Kashmir closely. Following this, the Citizenship Amendment Act also received a sharp response from the Democrats. The stand of the Democrats sent out a message to the Indian government that engaging with a possible Democrat President would not be that easy.

In fact, when Trump referred to India’s air as “filthy” in the last presidential debate in Nashville, Biden tweeted saying: "It’s not how you talk about friends and it’s not how you solve global challenges like climate change." No doubt all these pointers indicate that the USA government will pursue its traditional line towards India, it is for the Modi government to come out of the shadow of Trump’s policies. It is worth recalling that when Trump was elected president in 2016, then foreign secretary S Jaishankar had gone to Washington DC within weeks to reach out to Trump’s top aides.

OLne development is quite important to note. While the Modi government or the office of the prime minister is yet to initiate the move to build bridges and improve the bipartisan relation with the new USA government to be led by Joe Biden, the process of interchange has come from the BJP. Senior BJP Ram Madhav realising the propensity of the situation and to avoid the least possibility of Biden adopting an indifference attitude towards India, has through a write up has underlined that US-India ties stand on a mutually beneficial bipartisan and strong footing.

The manner which Modi has surrendered India’s interest before Donald Trump, it has become imperative that the BJP and RSS leadership must take a pragmatic approach and try to reach out to the new American leadership. That is why the observation of Madhav ; “US-India ties stand on a bipartisan and strong footing and what India looks for is an America that brings with it many allies’’ gains much political importance.

The results indicate that the people of America did not support Trump for another term. That brings Trump the dubious distinction of being the first president in the last hundred years to have failed to get a second term for the Republican Party. Trump put up a spirited fight. He fought not just against the Democratic Party, but an atmosphere created by him; as one of the worst presidents of America on a moral scale.

Biden fought not so much on his own policies as on Trump’s perceived failures. The Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the growing racial tensions in the country were the major campaign issues for the Democrats. One thing is absolutely clear that Biden’s America will be different from Trump’s USA. The prime task and challenges before Biden is to restore the moral credibility of America which had hit low during Trump. In his eagerness to make America great locally, Trump ended up making America weak globally.

Some Indian who believe that Biden-Harris would be bad news for US-India relations are entirely wrong. While Biden and Kamala lay emphasis on basic fundamental rights and equality before law, the Modi government will refuse to accept their plea as these are according to Modi government, these are the internal matters of India. There is no doubt that in order to have strong and good relation with the USA, the Modi administration will have to look inwards. A centrist liberal consensus manages to overcome bipartisan divisions. American institutions have come through. The Democratic Party will tack back to a cultural and economic centrism. The right will not like to concede the ground to the centrist ideas and policies.There were issues like Kashmir on which the Democrats had a different take.

But good for Indian Americans does not necessarily mean good for the current government of India. On the contrary: The Biden team’s priorities are likely to drive a piece between the United States and continental Asia’s oldest democracy at a time when Washington is looking for new allies in its strategic rivalry with China.

As senator, Harris has been diplomatically circumspect in her few public comments about India’s government but has shown no love for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP. Last year, she even publicly criticized Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar while he was on an official visit to the United States. Harris herself has been critical of the Indian government’s policies in Kashmir and strongly suggested that she would put human rights at the centre of her approach to India.

Biden as president will be good for India, perhaps not that good for Modi. Biden-Harris won’t give Modi the free pass that Trump did. Biden has expressed disapproval of the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and Kamala Harris’ words on the abrogation of Article 370 should alarm New Delhi: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist base was ecstatic when Trump became president, because of his unabashed Islamophobia. That is visibly absent this time. Biden’s approach could be understood from this small incident. A group of Hindu Americans have reached out to the Biden campaign expressing their resentment to the language used against India and have urged them to reconsider their views. The group has also sought a similar policy paper on Hindu Americans. The Biden campaign did not respond to questions in this regard.

Donald Trump has forced India to not buy cheaper oil from Iran and Venezuela. Trump forced India to buy more expensive oil and gas from the United States, even pushing for long-term commitments that aren’t viable. Despite the India-China border tensions, Donald Trump hasn’t given India waiver from an American law that threatens sanctions on countries purchasing arms from Russia. Meanwhile, Trump raised tariffs on imports from India, on everything from steel to rubber, causing a “mini trade war” with India. He has removed preferential treatment given to Indian exports, further hurting the Indian economy at a time when it’s been bleeding. A host of changes to US visa policies have made it harder for US firms to hire Indians on H-1B work visas. This has hit the Indian outsourcing model hard.

On his part Joe Biden wants New Delhi to take necessary steps to restore rights of all Kashmiris and has expressed disappointment over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act as well as the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. “These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy,” according to the policy paper — ‘Joe Biden’s agenda for Muslim expressing their resentment to the language used against India and have urged them to reconsider their views. The group has also sought a similar policy paper on Hindu Americans. The Biden campaign did not respond to questions in this regard.

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