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Challenges For Indo-US Relations In Biden Era -Analysis


While Joe Biden, a liberal democrat and a secular integrationist, is the new tenant at the White House, Narendra Modi with an ideology diametrically opposed to Biden, is entrenched in New Delhi. Differences between the two are bound to arise as both are fiercely committed to their respective ideologies and political agendas.

Touted in the Trump era as “strategic partners”, India and the US will be two different kettles of fish from now on.  While India is lurching towards authoritarianism and communal intolerance, the US is trying to shed such tendencies. While Biden will be viewing Modi critically, Modi will be approaching Biden cautiously, even if he continues to indulge in his make-believe bear hug diplomacy.

The “Howdy Modi” pantomime, which was to meant keep bilateral spirits up for at least a decade, has abruptly ended to be replaced by the real world of grim issues. Biden will be putting on his ideological glasses to look at issues beyond joint Indo-US strategies to contain China. This shift will require Modi to present India as a just society where there is concern for the plight of the poor, the minorities, the depressed castes and farmers.

Biden has consciously raised the democracy bar in America, the world’s first democracy and would expect the world’s largest democracy, India, to follow suit. Modi’s unbridled intolerance in Kashmir, the lynching, persecution, marginalization and exclusion of Muslims and the continued oppression of the Dalits, will have to be tempered substantially. In world human rights forums, like the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), India cannot assume the arrogant stance that these matters are beyond the purview of outsiders. Biden’s men will be there as he has promised to take the US back to the UNHRC.   

“In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir,” says Biden’s Agenda for Muslim Americans, published on the campaign’s website. “Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy,” it adds.

Kamala Harris had said in October 2019, when she was a candidate in the Democratic primaries: “We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

Good To Indians

Biden may have differences with Modi, but he has been manifestly good to Indians as a people.  He has nominated Indo-Americans for as many as 20 top position in the Federal government and 13 of them are women. These recruits are from all major Indian ethnic and religious groups. They include three Muslim women, two of them of Kashmiri origin – Aisha Shah, who has been named as Partnership Manager at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, and Sameera Fazili, who would occupy the key position of Deputy Director at the US National Economic Council (NEC) in the White House.

Uzra Zeya and Samira Fazili had joined protest rallies against the draconian Indian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the prolonged lockdown in Kashmir. In his Agenda for Muslim-American Communities, Biden condemned the   CAA and NRC calling these projects “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”

According to TIME Kashmiri activists in the US see the Biden Administration as an opening that would bring an end to the agony in the Kashmir Valley. “Biden and Harris recognize that Kashmir is an issue that has no military solution and that it must be resolved through dialogue between the Kashmiri leadership, India and Pakistan,” said Ghulam N. Mir, President of the World Kashmir Awareness Forum, in a statement to TIME. “To achieve peace in Kashmir, and put an end to seven decades of human rights abuses, the US government will have to play an active role,” he added.

RSS Affiliates Abjured

More strikingly, Biden has sidelined Indo-American Democrats who have Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) connections. Over 12 secular Indian-American organizations had put pressure on the Biden-Harris team to abjure such persons. Nineteen Indian-American organizations had written to Biden pointing out that many South Asian-American individuals with ties to Far Right Hindu organizations in India were affiliated with the Democratic Party. Needless to say, Far Right organizations are anathema for Biden.

This perhaps led to the benching of leading Obama administration staffers Sonal Shah and Amit Jani, though they worked in the Biden poll campaign. Sonal Shah’s father was the president of Overseas Friends of BJP-USA and is the founder of RSS-run Ekal Vidyalaya for which she has raised funds.

Significantly,  among the first orders Biden passed as President were the following: ending the ban on the entry of Muslims into the US; revoking Trump’s order to exclude noncitizens from the Census and opening the way to giving citizenship to 11 million immigrants without permanent legal status. All this will endear Biden to ordinary middle class Indians.  

New Look Ties With India

Biden is committed to strengthening US-India relations to build a bulwark against the twin threats, Islamic terrorism and China’s aggressive expansionism. “The U.S. and India will stand together against terrorism in all its forms and work together to promote a region of peace and stability where neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbors,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in an Indian-American newspaper in October 2020.

It has to be acknowledged that the need for India’s support to counter China in the Indian Ocean Region will temper Biden’s criticism of India on rights issues.

“The Biden team understands that lecturing India publicly or threatening it publicly will not go down well, and will not achieve any change that they want to see,” Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying.

“I suspect you might have a Biden Administration that is more likely to bring these issues up privately. But I think publicly, you’ll see a continuation of what we saw both Obama and Trump do, which is alluding to these issues through talking about the importance for the world of India as a diverse, tolerant democracy,” Madan added.

US-China Relations Factor

Biden’s relations with India will be shaped also by US-China relations. While Trump and Pompeo took an abrasive stance against China, Biden is expected to take a “consensus-based approach to coax China to accept more acceptable practices” as one observer put it.

Unlike Trump, Biden knows that on many pressing global issues, from trade to public health, environment and climate change, China is an indispensable stake holder and cannot be sidelined. Therefore, the Biden administration will adopt a multilayered approach towards China, using deterrence when necessary and seeking cooperation on issues of global concern at other times. According to former President George W. Bush, Biden will do this because he is a quintessentially “a uniter, not a divider.”

However, this approach may not entirely be in India’ interest in case it wants to continue to follow its tough stand on China. James Crabtree, an associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific program of Chatham House, is quoted as saying: “If American policy ends up going slightly easier on China than Trump did, and going after Russia, then that complicates India’s position. India wouldn’t be too keen on that, given they have good relations with Russia.”

India will therefore need to carefully craft its policies and keep them flexible as unexpected situations could arise at any time, such as the exit of Trump in disgrace putting India in quandary. India would do well to remember that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in international politics. The US, which helped India against China in 1962, abandoned India in favor of China a few years later under President Richard Nixon.

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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