A change in America

After some days of counting, the decision desks at news organisations decided over the weekend that enough votes in the United States presidential election had been tabulated to come to the conclusion that former vice-president Joe Biden had won. The incumbent, Donald Trump, has not conceded defeat and is likely to contest the election legally as well as demand recounts in narrowly decided states. But Mr Biden’s victory appears secure, and has been generally accepted around the world with congratulations pouring in from most world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Alongside Mr Biden, Senator Kamala Harris of California was elected vice-president, which has special significance for India because she is the daughter of an immigrant from Tamil Nadu. Mr Biden, in a victory speech from his home state of Delaware, laid out some of his priorities as the United States’ 46th president. Much of it was a call for healing and unifying a divided country, but there were also indicators of his policy priorities. He identified, in particular, the immediate challenge of getting the pandemic under control — the US is setting record numbers of new daily infections at the moment — but also mentioned climate change as a key priority.

For India, the election of Mr Biden is a mixed blessing. In general, New Delhi has gotten along better with Republican presidents, who have focused on India’s status as a democracy and a bulwark against authoritarianism, than with Democratic presidents, who have also been concerned about human rights, religious freedom, and (in the past) non-proliferation. Mr Modi, however, in his tweet congratulating the president-elect, called Mr Biden’s contribution as vice-president in strengthening the Indo-US bilateral partnership “critical and invaluable”. Mr Biden was, in fact, instrumental in gathering support for the Indo-US nuclear deal within the US Congress even before he became vice-president in 2008, and has spoken of hoping that the closest relationship of the 21st century would be that between India and the US. The closing years of the Barack Obama presidency featured a series of moments in which the bilateral relationship did indeed grow closer together, particularly in the military and strategic spheres. New Delhi will hope this momentum will continue.

That said, there will also be some disquiet. While nobody can deny that personal diplomacy is a key tool of 21st-century statecraft and that Mr Modi deploys it extremely effectively, it is also unfortunate that in recent years the Indian government has allowed itself to be identified politically with the Trump administration through rallies such as “Howdy Modi”, rather than strengthening its traditionally bipartisan outreach. The government has also unnecessarily alienated some of the more progressive Democrats in Washington who may gain increased power in Capitol Hill in a Biden administration. Much work will need to be done in order to recover these amateurish errors. But in the end, the momentum that underlies the US-India relationship is undeniable. Some irritants, such as immigration and visas, will be less problematic now, and trade negotiations will also hopefully become less transactional. The Indian government’s recent focus on climate change and renewable energy in its international outreach will now also find an enthusiastic partner in Washington where none was before. With a little effort, this change in leadership can be made to work for India.


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