There is little doubt that the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have hoped to see President Donald Trump get a second term in office. While it is true, as many analysts have said, that the bilateral relationship between India and the United States is now by and large immune to domestic political change in both countries, the fact is that Trump was Modi’s default option. External affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has his task cut out building bridges with the incoming Biden administration. He would have already reached out to all the Obama people he cultivated during his brief tenure in Washington DC as India’s ambassador, and the friends he made in U.S. boardrooms as president, Global Corporate Affairs of Tata Sons. Don’t forget, Jaishankar was named India’s foreign secretary in 2015, days before his retirement, partly because he managed to get President Barack Obama to New Delhi as chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day parade.
President-elect Joseph Biden has, of course, been a friend of India. Apart from an ancestral family connection to Mumbai, that media have reported, Biden befriended India as chairman of the U.S. senate foreign relations committee. In 2007-2008 he helped get the U.S.-India civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement approved by the U.S. Congress. It may recalled that senators Obama and Hillary Clinton in fact voted against the deal, while Biden voted for it. That settles the question of Biden’s view of India.
While Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would also be supportive of good relations between the two nations, she has been tough on the BJP’s record on human rights, in general, and rights of minorities in particular. As a member of a U.S. minority—Asian-African-American—Harris would be more sensitive to the BJP’s Hindu majoritarianism. Going forward, what Indian policymakers and business leaders will look forward to would be the composition of the Biden administration. For Indian business the key officials would be the treasury secretary, commerce secretary, and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
Washington DC grapevine has already started speculating. Many expect economist and U.S. Federal Reserve governor Lael Brainard to be named treasury secretary. Brainard knows India well. Her husband, Kurt Campbell, was a member of the Obama administration. Both were active on the U.S.-India 'track two' circuit during the Clinton and Bush eras. At the department of commerce, speculation is rife that a Republican-leaning private sector CEO may get the job. Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Hewlett Packard, heads the list of probables that includes Terry McAuliffe, a former governor of Virginia, and Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments. The probables for the key and tough job of USTR include California Congressman Jimmy Gomez and Nelson Cunningham, president and co-founder of McLarty Associates, a global advisory firm with an interest in India. Both the Indian government and business will keenly await the name for this post given the tough time they had with Trump’s aggressive USTR, Robert Lighthizer.
Biden has been a vocal supporter of closer business-to-business relations between the U.S. and India. Many Indian CEOs in California and across the U.S. funded his campaign. The Indian American community voted overwhelmingly in support of the Biden-Harris ticket, as a recent opinion poll showed. However, on H-1B visas, one must wait and watch, for Biden has to also help increase employment at home.
The USTR appointment is important and Biden’s trade policy, bilateral and multilateral, will be closely watched by India. The Trump administration took steps that hurt India and was dragging its feet on a resolution. Trump had also threatened to walk out of the World Trade Organization and had refused to confirm the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s trade minister, as director-general of WTO. Will the African-American presence in the Biden administration encourage support for Okonjo-Iweala over her better qualified rival, the South Korean trade minister?
The policy towards WTO will also signal an overall policy towards multilateralism. Biden is expected to take the U.S. back into the World Health Organization and also re-enter the Paris Accord on climate change. Biden is an internationalist and may be tempted to assert the U.S.’s traditional global role, moving away from Trump’s isolationism. However, given his domestic preoccupations in the near term, it remains to be seen how much energy Biden would have for this. Would he then encourage Kamala Harris to be his global face?
At the State Department and the Pentagon, the rumour mills expect female leadership to take charge. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, is a front-runner for State along with William Burns, an Obama administration official who knows India well, and Antony Blinken, a Biden advisor. At the Pentagon, analysts expect Michèle Flournoy to take charge as the first woman defence secretary. Flournoy is co-founder of the new think tank, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and a former defence department official.
U.S.-India strategic and defence relations will certainly thrive. It remains to be seen what view Biden would take of Russia and China. He is expected to be tougher on Russia, but persist with Trump’s policies on China. Biden will certainly repair U.S. relations with its allies and partners, especially the European Union, Japan, and South Korea. That should serve India well. Foreign policy analysts in China have already started advising their leadership to reach out to the U.S. and seek more stable relations. Biden may well reciprocate favourably given that his priority in the near term will be to get a grip over the Covid-19 pandemic and step up economic growth at home.
The real message of a Biden presidency will be more political than either strategic or economic. Biden’s voters have rejected Trump’s racism and would like America to assert the liberal values of its Constitution. While the Biden administration may not overturn all aspects of the relationships that Trump built with rightwing leaders like himself—Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu and such like—it will certainly remind the world that the U.S. is a liberal and plural democracy that believes in equality of all, irrespective of race, colour, religion or ethnicity. That message will be given to India too. Indeed, the U.S. needs to regain its democratic credentials weakened by four years of Trumpism.
Views are personal. The author is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis. He has been a newspaper editor and advisor to the Prime Minister of India.