Let me commence by stating what should have been said at the end but being so significant, it needs to be said in the beginning. It is about an Indian television show I was watching while the battle of counting for the US Presidential election was going on in Arizona and Nevada, the two famous desert and cowboy states of America. The anchor asked five well-known members of the panel whether they would sleep more comfortably with Trump in the chair of President or Biden.
Without any hesitation, all five responded in favour of Biden, summing up the reality of Trump’s relations with India. There is no doubt that Trump’s presidency has seen a transformational progression of Indo-US relations, but it is the unpredictability and the causticity that obviously does not appeal to conventional observers. With a Biden presidency looming ahead, what would it be like for India and Indo-US relations?
President Donald Trump has been a friend of India for four years, have no doubts about that. Yet, he had India on tenterhooks too with his non-traditional leadership. Biden’s ascent would mean the restoration of traditional American leadership to the White House. Many a President has been errant but none could ever be branded as erratic, whimsical and unpredictable in behaviour as Donald Trump, his favourable disposition to India notwithstanding.
To keep America at ‘number one’, Americans have to adopt ‘World First’ and not ‘America First’. That is what US Presidents have done without faltering since 1945. Biden is expected to return the Presidency to the old value system that has always been about promotion of democracy, stability, human rights, cultural and religious freedoms, plurality and inclusiveness, though many of these may also not be abundantly found in the America of the past or the present. America won the Cold War on the back of pursuit of these values. As the world’s leading power, it will probably see its leadership returning to more traditional ways.
Trump’s relationship with India was definitely of a high order and he took the strategic partnership with shared concerns to a new high. In fact, I branded the recent 2+2 Dialogue in Delhi as a transformational event 15 years after the initiation of the Framework Agreement of 2005. This progression of the relationship was commenced by the Republicans and nurtured by the Democrats. As such, there appears little scope for change, especially with an enhanced threat from China.
It was the Obama doctrine that aimed to take the focus of America to the Indo-Pacific by adopting what was called the ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘Rebalancing’. With the drawdown of focus in the Middle East and a near-total withdrawal from Afghanistan on the cards, Trump’s legacy is also a hand-me-down from Obama that facilitates America’s concentration on the Indo-Pacific; nothing is needed to be changed in this and Biden should have no hesitation to relate to India and the current threats in Ladakh. In fact, he has spoken on this during his campaign.
The transformational relationship with India is likely to be actively pursued by Joe Biden with no misgivings about providing India modern technologies and weapon systems such as armed drones for India’s Armed Forces. As our largest trading partner, the US would only like to see a healthy return to trade with minimum barriers to support the growth of both economies that have suffered due to the pandemic.
India and Indians are primarily skeptical about J&K and Pakistan. Biden and perhaps more his running mate Kamala Harris have been often referring to Article 370 and rights of the people of Kashmir being infringed. Biden himself has commented upon CAA and NRC. Observers point to Biden being less supportive of India on Kashmir. Two things need to be pointed out. First, none of these utterances were in the policy mode, they were just personal observations.
The outlook of a candidate or his running mate before polls does not necessarily become policy as close advisers, academic experts and others temper that opinion once in office. Biden has been in power with Obama and was never known to have anything against Indian handling of Kashmir. As one of the oldest sufferers of transnational terror, India can internationally hold its own on its J&K policy, although early engagement with the new administration and better attention towards narrative control is what India will have to work upon. An early informal brief to the so-called ‘Samosa Caucus’, the group of Indian-origin Congressmen—all Democrats—needs to be done. This caucus must be urged and rationally convinced on the Indian narratives on Kashmir.
On Pakistan, the US has its compulsions. Even Trump would have preferred to send Pakistan packing, but he knew that the Afghanistan policy could not be played out without its support. Biden is unlikely to be very sympathetic towards a Pakistan already sold out to China, although he would aim to get it back. He could follow the Trump model of dealing with Pakistan virtually through Saudi Arabia and convey the no uncertain US disapproval of the China card.
A humanitarian policy oriented to bail out Pakistan’s economy should not be mistaken as a pro-Pakistan policy. Preventing Pakistan from imploding may well be a service the US would compulsorily have to perform, Trump or Biden notwithstanding. Although nothing will change overnight and Biden is no weak-kneed leader, some of the areas where early decisions may be taken are in institutional support and leadership that has traditionally been an American convention. Rejoining WHO, UNESCO, Paris Climate Agreement and Global Compact for Migration could be on the priority list to accord America a leadership role again.
There are at least six other agreements and protocols that will need to be reviewed for re-entry. Among them is the Iran Nuclear Deal of July 2015. How this is renegotiated, if at all, will dictate Indian interests in the sanctions-hit Chabahar port and the purchase of Iran’s oil and gas, which is always favourable to Indian interests. On the social side, there are great expectations of return to the better days of US immigration policies.
The Indian diaspora support to Biden and Kamala has been of a marked order and would progressively make a difference. Increase in quotas of H1B visas and percentage of Green Card allotment will mean lesser return of Indians to an India struggling with the jobs scenario. The other area of cooperation in current times is the management of the development and distribution of an anti-Covid vaccine. Herein lies great scope for India and the US to cooperate and create for the world a sizable capacity of vaccine. It is Biden’s mature handling without unnecessary bias towards ‘America First’ in this domain that could set the course for an even more transformational relationship based upon cooperation in difficult times.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir