This time, too, it might be a mistake to go too much by appearances … or the experiences of other parties with different perspectives
When Joe Biden warned India in 2000 not to take advantage of the Afghan crisis because, as he put it, the whole world, not just the United States, was looking at the Kashmir problem, Jaswant Singh, then India’s external affairs minister, promptly cancelled his appointment with the Democratic senator. The snub did not however prevent Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President George W. Bush signing a defence cooperation agreement and one American visitor following another to New Delhi to flesh out the bones of the multi-faceted cooperation.
The episode is worth remembering for several reasons as India -- like the rest of the world -- awaits the outcome of America’s 2020 presidential contest. The 2000 election was marked by bitter partisan squabbling followed by a flawed victory. Biden, the Delaware Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee, was an established friend of India’s. Eight months into the new administration, he had written to Bush asking him to remove the sanctions on India that President Bill Clinton had imposed after the Pokharan-2 nuclear tests, but adding that there should be no easing up for Pakistan.
The feverish excitement of President Clinton’s Indian tour in early 2000 had not sparked any reciprocal goodwill in America, where righteous proliferation fundamentalists among the Democrats did not forgive India for challenging what they regarded as God’s word. Mr Clinton himself saw Pokharan-2 as a personal betrayal. India expected a fairer deal from the Republicans, and amazingly, astonishingly, Mr Bush fulfilled that promise with the historic US–India Civil Nuclear Agreement (known as the 123 Agreement) that he and India’s last Congress Prime Minister, the scholarly Dr Manmohan Singh, signed in 2006.
This time, too, it might be a mistake to go too much by appearances … or the experiences of other parties with different perspectives. However egregious President Donald Trump might appear in media projections and however appealing Mr Biden might seem by contrast, no Indian can afford to forget Palmerston’s dictum that only a country’s interests -- not its allies -- are eternal and perpetual.
Of course, hard pragmatism can be carried too far. New Delhi’s present relations with Israel might be cited as a case in point. Zionist propagandists used to argue that the then 15 Arab votes at the United Nations never supported India on crucial issues like Kashmir or the Sino-Indian border. Yet, India remained aligned with the Arabs ignoring offers of Israeli technical and agricultural assistance, security and intelligence cooperation, sophisticated weaponry and the powerful American Zionist lobby.
Only one factor modifies this persuasive argument: the world’s biggest democracy whose founding fathers -- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru -- were inspired by lofty beliefs cannot ever ignore the consequences of its actions. Whether or not the Arabs reciprocate, no self-respecting Indian government can ignore the impact of its policy on Palestine’s future.
Mature handling of foreign policy demands a certain balancing of objective moral judgment and national interest. The absence of this judicious mix prompts sellout allegations, as in some South American republics or Asian client states of the US like Syngman Rhee’s South Korea or the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos. That is not how Indians see their national future. Few Indians have any wish to live up to Sitaram Yechury’s jibe about being the new Pakistan.
It’s a different matter that Indian Americans, the second-largest immigrant group in the United States, mostly support Democratic candidates, although support for Trump has reportedly grown in recent years. A YouGov poll found that 72 per cent of registered Indian American voters support Biden. By comparison, 77 per cent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 84 per cent for Barack Obama in 2012. The poll also claims that the number of Trump-supporting Indian Americans has grown to 22 per cent, from 16 per cent in 2016.
The motivation of these people is not, however, the motivation of Indians in India. The latter are far less moved, for instance, by racism in the US, the damage done to American democratic institutions or the consequences of Trump’s eccentricities on climate change, Iran or the Covid-19 pandemic than US citizens, regardless of ethnic origin. Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that as vice-president, Biden, his son and his brothers were “like a vacuum cleaner” getting rich, makes little difference to us. Indian Indians must look at next month’s election only in terms of what matters to India.
Biden’s win in both Houses of Congress will mean “potentially more favourable US trade policies” for India, predicts UBS Global Research, boosting investors’ sentiment and pushing up markets. A Biden victory may also replace the Fed’s current chair Jerome Powell with someone more dovish in 2022. If Trump wins, they assume that an unorthodox chairman could be nominated who might even look at negative rates, which would be of tremendous help to Indian markets, resulting in the continued inflow of cheap capital into Indian stock as well as debt markets.
What the financial analyses overlook is the Democratic commitment to human rights, religious freedom and minority opportunities which successive Indian governments have found irksome. While these are not traditional Republican concerns, Trump’s harsh rhetoric on immigration probably explains his campaign’s recent “Indian Voices for Trump”, a coalition of Indian Americans in government and the private sector led by Donald Trump Jr. to “honour the comprehensive global strategic partnership with India” and “build on our US-India partnership.”
The younger Trump toured India some years ago on a mission to promote Trump Towers, strengthening the belief that the President puts his money where his mouth is. By that token alone, a Trump victory cannot be to India’s disadvantage. A businessman like the US President never ignores the profit motive.