NEW DELHI: He has waited four years to run for the presidency, is being projected as the shoo-in by pollsters and has promised to be the balm that will heal America’s divisive wounds. As Joe Biden prepares for the last lap on the road to White House, he has vowed to take U.S. allies along if he makes it to the top job. And he has said strengthening ties with India will be ‘high priority’.
There’s bipartisan support in the United States for the India relationship. A new phase in ties began during the India visit of President Bill Clinton (Democrat) in 2000. It was taken forward by George W. Bush (Republican) with the civil nuclear cooperation agreement. The bilateral relationship progressed even further under Barack Obama (Democrat) who visited India twice during his tenure, announced support to India’s demand for permanent membership in the UN Security Council and also declared India a major defence partner. Despite uncertainties, the relationship advanced under Donald Trump (Republican) who gave India Strategic Trade Authorization Level 1 (STA-1) for technology releases similar to what the U.S. does for its major allies and partners.
Biden has said, for him U.S.-India ties are about ‘getting things done’ unlike what he called Donald Trump’s ‘photo-ops’. At a virtual campaign event to mark India’s Independence Day in August, Biden spoke about his role in pushing through the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal. In 2001, as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, he had written a letter to President Bush, asking for removal of sanctions against India.
But Biden has also voiced “disappointment” over the measures taken by India for the implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Could these be irritants in bilateral ties if he’s elected President? “There are issues where there will be differences. But as Biden has said, whatever be the differences, they would be worked out on the basis of dialogue among friends,” says Arun Kumar Singh, former Indian Ambassador to the United States.
It’s not as if the going for India has been smooth all along under President Trump. Tariffs have been imposed on steel and aluminium imports from India. The U.S. has removed GSP benefits from India and has imposed restrictions on H1-B visas. “You cannot have 100 per cent convergence on all issues with any administration, as you don’t even have with the Trump administration. Therefore, while there may be some differences, I am quite confident, under the Biden administration, the relationship would continue under the positive trajectory,” Ambassador Singh told StratNews Global.
Kashmir could be another prickly issue. Biden has been critical of what he calls “restrictions on dissent” (in the aftermath on India scrapping Article 370 last year that did away with the special status enjoyed by Jammu & Kashmir). “Preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy. The Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir,” Biden’s campaign website reads. Democrats have always been vocal about what they call human rights issues and the party’s progressive wing may just exert extra pressure. But Biden has already sought to dispel that notion when Trump attacked him during the first presidential debate by calling him a ‘radical Leftist’. “As Joe Biden said during the first debate, he will be guided by the Biden platform, not by the platform of this or that wing of the party. It is normal for the party to have different points of view but Biden will be working out his own policies. And given his approach in the past, I am confident that he is fully aware of India’s compulsions and strengths,” said Ambassador Singh.
Immigration will be another area of focus. Calling Trump’s immigration moves misguided, Biden has promised to pursue policies that are fair and just, safeguard U.S. security and cherish American values. “Immigration is essential to who we are as a nation, our core values, and our aspirations for our future,” Biden has said. He has also spoken about bringing jobs back to America, encouraging manufacturing in America because a very important part of the Democratic platform is to create jobs in the United States. If Trump imposed restrictions on H-1B visas, under the Obama administration there were phases when visa fee for H-1B workers was increased. In the past, the Congress had even brought in legislation seeking restriction on H-1B appointments beyond a threshold. According to Ambassador Singh: “There is also a sentiment in the U.S. that the strength of the United States derives from immigration. And that the innovation happening in the U.S. is also driven by highly qualified hi-tech immigrants coming in. I expect that a Biden administration would perhaps be less political than a Trump administration at looking at this issue”.
Now, India’s troubled neighbourhood, both to its left and right. Biden has promised he would stand together with India against “terrorism in all its forms” and promote a region of peace and stability where “neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbours”.
For now, Biden has made all the right noises. But what’s true about the stock markets holds good for politics as well—past performance is no guarantee of future results.