Trump or Hillary, things won't change between India and U.S.
This article first appeared in The Hindu thREAD on November 7, 2016 and can be accessed here.
Irrespective of the change in leadership, relations between the two nations are strong enough to weather through the personal discretions of its leaders.
The elections in the United States have become an increasingly popular spectacle as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump vie for the leadership of the land of the free and the world of the brave. The rest of the world watches on with incredulity. The elections are closely followed in India to glean how they will affect relations with the country. Historical baggage and the role of the Indian American diaspora are important factors. However, contrary to popular belief, the choice between Clinton and Trump remains immaterial for Indian foreign policy, because of relations between the two largest democracies in the world stretch beyond leaders.
As the executive head of one of the great powers in the world, the choice of the U.S. President is seen as having repercussions on the rest of the world. During the Cold War, there remained an impression that India’s relations with America fared better when a Democratic president was at the helm exemplified by the Kennedy administration and Chester Bowles, the American ambassador to India in 1951 who was vocal about the natural affinity between India and America when the tide of opinion was against India in Washington. On the other hand, Presidents such as Johnson and Nixon were seen as villainous because of their policies. However, at the end of the Cold War, Republican presidents were seen as better for relations for India despite their nature of their policies on U.S. domestic front. This is epitomised by George W. Bush who is arguably, one of the least popular presidents of the U.S. Still, it was Bush who signed the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, affirming India as a ‘responsible nuclear power’.
However, the Republican v/s Democrat debate with respect to relations with India has little relevance now. Since the Clinton Administration, relations between India and the U.S. have warmed up to a scenario where the idea of estranged democracies seems implausible. The Obama Administration continued with Bush’s legacy with regard to India, by strengthening ties between the two countries on a variety of fronts including defence, economy and terrorism. Therefore, the next President of the U.S. will have inherited a foreign policy towards India that has been on an upturn for at least a decade now.
Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, during the first term of the Obama Administration, was one of the mastheads of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy and had even served as the Head of the Senate India Caucus. This has found favour amongst several Indian strategists. At one point, Clinton was even dubbed ‘the Democrat from Punjab’ because of her close ties with Indian Americans. Donald Trump, on the other hand has little experience with foreign policy and has made little more than ambiguous statements about foreign policy. Trump has made unpopular speeches about immigration, which could affect the debate on H1B visas, a sticking point in Indian-American relations.
On the other hand, he has mentioned that India is an important factor in countering terrorism in Pakistan and even briefly praised the Indian economy. However, these statements can barely qualify for a coherent foreign policy.
Irrespective of the change in leadership, relations between India and the U.S. are strong enough to weather through personal discretions of the U.S. President. Politicians often develop selective amnesia about previous statements — consider for example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visa ban and deplorement by several U.S. politicians (including Hillary Clinton) until he became the strongman of Indian foreign policy in 2014. Therefore, it is unlikely that either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton can drastically change the tone of engagement with India. On the other hand, let us not allow a decade of friendly relations to discount changing geopolitics. India and America might be forced to part ways from their current state of ‘natural allies’. While the foreign policy may differ from the lines of the Obama administration, we cannot attribute this change to the leader at the helm alone.
An important point which is often overlooked is the appointment of the new American ambassador to India. The Indian establishment prefers an ambassador who, above all other accomplishments, has the ear of the President. The appointment is seen as a reflection of the amount of weightage the American executive accords to its relations with India. The incumbent American Ambassador Richard Verma, had worked alongside President Obama on his 2008 campaign and was a popular choice in the American Congress and, therefore, well-received in India. His predecessor, Nancy Powell was a career diplomat with knowledge of South Asian Affairs but was not seen as a political appointee close to Obama. While Verma has only served two years in his current post, political appointees customarily tender their resignation when there is a change in leadership. As the American envoy to India is nominated by the President and then confirmed by the Senate, this is one post that will be important for Indian-American relations in the next Presidency.
The Indian media is particularly interested in the votes of the Indian-American community in the United States. Pew Research reported that 65% of Indian-Americans lean towards the Democrats while only 18% lean towards the Republican party. As one of the largest-growing and most affluent immigrants, the choice of the Indian-American community is seen as important. However, it is important to remember that diaspora voting patterns offer little for relations with the home country; Indian-American votes do not reflect the choice of how India views the U.S. elections. Another important point is that the Indian-American community is currently too small in number to affect election outcomes even though they currently form the third-largest minority amongst Asian-Americans.
However, they do play an important role in election funding, as both the Democrats and the Republicans have important donors from the Indian American community. Shalabh Kumar, Indian-American businessman, recently made the single largest donation to the tune of $898,800 to the Republican campaign. Trump has also claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign relies on Indian-American donations from the likes of the Confederation of Indian Industry, politicians and businessmen. While the Indian government has officially engaged only one firm-lobbyist and PR agency — the BGR group — Indian companies, the diaspora and political action committees such as the USINPAC play an important role in lobbying for Indian interests. While people-to-people ties are important, it is the translation of these ties in the political process that counts. These are the transnational ties that form the backbone of relations between India and America.
Neo-realists believe that foreign policy is a black box and that the decision-making processes are irrelevant because states are rational actors who act in their self interest. U.S. relations with India will continue the tenor of strong engagement in the absence of massive geopolitical events, irrespective of which way the elections swing. The U.S. executive does have massive discretionary powers with regard to foreign policy. However, they are still subject to democratic checks and balances. The U.S. President is the face of America but foreign policy is not contingent on their worldview alone. From the Indian shores currently, there is little to worry about the U.S. elections and how they pan out. At the end of the day, international relations do not depend solely on leaders.