The Indian establishment is confident that the change of guard in Washington will not in any way affect ever-warming ties with the US. After all, they argue relations with India have bipartisan support with both Republican and Democratic administrations rooting for it.
That is true, but there is a lesson to be learned for the Narendra Modi government: Do not go overboard when it comes to dealing with foreign leaders, however much a maverick President like Donald Trump may profess friendship and admiration for you.
The 2019 ‘Howdy Modi’ event, where the Indian Prime Minister, perhaps carried away by the mega show wherein he was attended by the US President, went ahead and endorsed Trump by saying “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar.’’
Hours after the PM said it, the ministry of external affairs tried to play it down and said India could never speak about the internal politics of other countries.
However, the event organised by Indian-American admirers of the Prime Minister with nearly 50,000 people in attendance, was widely covered and the government cannot hide behind denials.
India is lucky that President Joe Biden, a pragmatic leader will not hold this against him. If roles were reversed and Modi had endorsed Joe Biden and Trump came to power, it would have been an entirely different matter. An egoist like Trump would have remembered the slight and made much of it.
Not to forgot the time when foreign minister S. Jaishankar refused to meet a Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal because she had introduced a bi-partisan resolution with Representative Steve Watkins (Republican) calling on India to uphold basic human rights in Kashmir.
Jaishankar was to meet the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during his visit to the US in December 2019. He cancelled the meeting because Jayapal was in the group. The Congressional team refused to drop her and the meeting was cancelled.
Current Vice President Kamala Harris also criticised the Indian foreign minister’s move in a tweet at that time. Jayapal remembers that during a visit to India in 2017, with the then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi on a Congressional visit, she had raised the issue of religious freedom in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the team paid a call on the PM. Jaishankar was in the meeting with Modi.
This kind of muscular gestures by Jaishankar may be much appreciated by supporters of the BJP in India, but the Democrats were not amused. Trump’s White House had little time to waste on human rights violations, where ever they occurred unless of course it was in China. That was not because of the sufferings of the Uighur Muslims but because Donald Trump was taking on China for trade practices and its aggressive moves in Asia.
The framework for the India-US partnership remains on solid ground. Relations will not get affected. It was Republican George Bush who started the new chapter in India-US ties with his offer of the India-US civil nuclear agreement during Manmohan Singh’s tenure. The idea was to get India to balance China’s unfettered military and economic might in Asia. Democrat Barack Obama carried this forward through his eight-year term. Republican Donald Trump changed the lexicon of the Asia Pacific to Indo-Pacific. Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific will continue to grow, especially now with all four foundation defence agreements signed between India and the US.
While Indian’s celebrate Kamala Harris and her achievement, no one should expect her to let her Indian heritage weight-in on policy matters. She is an American and will look to what is best for her country. There will be no concessions.
On major issues India and the US will have few differences. But as human rights and freedom form a strong foundation of the Democratic Party, these will be raised by the administration. Perhaps not so publicly, but behind closed doors, human rights will figure.
No one can forget that during Barack Obama’s highly successful visit to India as the chief guest for Republic Day in 2015, he spoke of India’s diversity and said India will succeed so long as it was not “splintered along the lines of religious faith…every person has a right to practice the faith that they choose and to practice no faith at all and to do so free of persecution fear or discrimination,’’ in his last public interaction in India in the townhall format. This was a powerful message to India.
Human Rights continue to be important for Democrats. The younger members of the party are both articulate and energetic. The youth are an important segment of Biden's support base. These younger Democrats want the party to stick to his core values of diversity and religious freedom and will be form a powerful lobby which the Biden-Harris team cannot ignore.
After the euphoria of ensuring Donald Trump is out of power, the different groups within the party will fight to get the administration to reflect their ideals. Much will depend on how Joe Biden is able to maintain a hold on these sections within the party. India will have to look closely at its human rights record as the new administration gets set to rule for the next four years.