By Harsh V. Pant
As the two contenders for the world’s most powerful office in the world — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — make their closing arguments, the uncertainty surrounding the US presidential elections continues to grow by the day. Polls are tightening and Clinton’s lead, which had seemed insurmountable a few days back, is now dwindling.
Though Clinton is still favoured to win the presidency because she is currently ahead in enough states to award her 317 electoral college votes — more than the 270 she needs to win — her odds have significantly worsened in a matter of days. Her campaign was hit hard when just eleven days before elections, FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau is reviewing additional emails to see whether they are related to the investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information.
The Republican nominee, meanwhile, continues to wage his battle against the media and the “mainstream” GOP, insisting that the election and polls are rigged by the “elite”. He also continues to target foreign policy — slamming the ongoing offensive against the Islamic State to take back Mosul, and predicting that Clinton’s strategy for Syria would “lead to World War III.”
India and Indian Americans have assumed a new salience in this strangest of US presidential elections.
In a first for a US presidential candidate, Trump attended an Indian American event organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) for Kashmiri Pundits and Bangladeshi Hindu terrorist victims a while ago. He termed India as a “key strategic ally” and promised that if voted to power, India and the US would become “best friends” and have a “phenomenal future” together.
Praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for leading India to a fast-track growth path through a series of economic reforms, and reforming the bureaucracy, Trump declared himself “a big fan of Hinduism” and “a big fan of India.”
The Trump campaign’s latest advertisement featured an image of Modi and a version of his popular campaign slogan “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar.”
The Republican candidate’s views on India seem to have evolved considerably from 2007 when he had expressed concerns about India and China overtaking the US economy. As a businessman, Trump has been trying to gain a foothold in the Indian property market.
In 2014, Trump teamed up with local Indian property developers to launch Trump Tower Mumbai, an 800-feet skyscraper with 75 storeys.
Other aspects of Trump’s worldview are also problematic when it comes to India and Indian Americans. A crackdown on illegal immigration from Mexico through a proposed border wall and other enforcement measures is a centrepiece of his campaign. In reality, immigrants from China and India outpace Mexican arrivals in most regions of the country.
Already there are growing concerns in India about America’s decision to raise the cost of applying for H-1B and other skilled worker visas by thousands of dollars. Indian industry, especially outsourcing firms, have reacted strongly to US lawmakers’ decision to raise visa fees for highly-skilled migrant workers, calling the move “discriminatory and punitive”.
Trump’s hardline position against Pakistan and Islamist radicalism may appeal to some in India, but for a nation with the second largest Muslim population in the world, the underlying xenophobia of this view should be disconcerting. Though Trump’s opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership can be considered beneficial for India — which is not part of the pact — protectionist policies of the kind the Republican presidential nominee espouses could be disastrous for our economy in the long term.
It is not surprising, therefore, that despite an impression that Trump enjoys widespread support among the Indian-American community, recent surveys indicate that more than 67 percent of Indian Americans supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton while only a measly 7 percent voted for Trump in the primaries. Moreover, a whopping 79 percent of Indian Americans had an unfavourable view of the New York billionaire. Trump’s sexist and racist rants have also led an Indian-American monthly publication, India Currents, to endorse a US presidential candidate for the first time in three decades. It asked its readers to vote for Clinton.
She is seen as a safer bet for India and Indian Americans. Her long-standing ties with India and her role in bringing the country to the centrestage of American strategic calculus in the Indo-Pacific region as Obama’s Secretary of State have endeared her to the Indian strategic community.
But by and large, India remains nonchalant about this election.
There is less speculation this time about the future of India-US relations under the new administration than in the recent past. Partly, this is a reflection of the strength of the bilateral relationship. The ties are so strong today that no US president can single-handedly challenge its foundations.
The structural realities facing the US and India are such that these relations are bound to grow in future irrespective of who’s in power. But this is also a result of a new self-confident India, charting its own course in world politics based on its national imperatives. There is also the recognition that Trump or Clinton will neither be pro-India nor anti-India — they will be pro-US. And if Obama had to change his foreign policy world view vis-à-vis India soon after coming into office, his successor too will have no choice but to build on Obama’s legacy and strengthen ties with India, given the global strategic realities.
This article originally appeared in Bloomberg Quint, and is reprinted with permission.