On 17 November, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the former vice president and reiterated his firm commitment to the Indo-US strategic partnership. However, the US mainstream media, which often calls Modi a "Trump ally", has suggested that Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris "could be bad news" for the Indian prime minister and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Foreign Policy Magazine referred to Harris' criticism of the BJP's Hindu nationalist agenda and New Delhi's handling of the Kashmir issue. For its part, CNN cited Obama's new book "A Promised Land", in which the former president lauded India's liberal policies under PM Manmohan Singh and then president of the Congress Party Sonia Gandhi, and expressed concerns about the rise of the BJP.
It Was BJP and Clinton Who Kick-Started New Era in US-India Relations
"I think even though it has been widely perceived that the Narendra Modi-led Indian government is a bit closer to the Donald Trump-led Republican Party leadership in the US, but as far as India’s foreign policy is concerned the ongoing election controversy shouldn’t have any impact on the bilateral relations as the Indian government, historically and religiously, follow the principle of not interfering or meddling into another country’s internal matter", says Suvam Pal, a Beijing-based Indian media professional and author, referring to the ongoing election debacle in the US.
Despite the Modi-Trump bonhomie reflected in the “Howdy Modi” event in the US and the “Ab ki Baar, Trump Sarkar" (“This time it’s the turn of the Trump administration") remark by the Indian prime minister, New Delhi "will only wait and watch and will chalk out its strategy to consolidate the bilateral relations accordingly without having any preconceived notion or any pre-meditated approach", according to the author.
Addressing the speculations about a possible change of heart towards Modi and the BJP under Democratic leadership, Pal suggested that they are exaggerated: one can’t expect any paradigm shift in US-India relations if former VP Biden becomes the next resident of the White House, according to him.
"In fact, it was actually Modi’s predecessor and the first Prime Minister from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Atal Behari Vajpayee who kick-started a new era in US-India relations as he joined hands with the then Democratic Party president, Bill Clinton, calling 'for the emergence of India and the US as 'natural allies' to undertake work for international peace, progress and prosperity in the 21st century", the author recollects.
When Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, occupied the White House in 2000, Vajpayee was eager to work with the Republican president to "take US-India ties to a new level".
"Like Vajpayee, Modi too worked well with two different US presidents, Barack Obama and Trump, from the two rival American political parties, and, I am sure with Biden sitting in the Oval Office from January 2021 onwards, there won’t be any major changes per se", he believes.
Modi & Obama Administration
As for Obama's complimentary remarks towards ex-Prime Minister Singh or Sonia Gandhi, the author, who has read "A Promised Land" in its entirety, notes that the former president also "took a dig at the Congress Party, including branding former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s style 'a more ruthless brand of politics' and calling Sonia’s son Rahul 'a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject'".
"Obama also made a quip at PM Singh for 'fighting off sleep, lifting his glass every so often to wake himself up with a sip of water'", Pal says. "I am sure the sequel is expected to have more explosive remarks against Modi and the BJP. However, when people talk about the bromance-like camaraderie between Trump and Modi, they tend to forget that President Obama had co-hosted Modi’s much-publicised Mann Ki Baat (Inner Thoughts) radio show and the Indian Prime Minister extensively used Obama’s famous presidential campaign chant 'Yes We Can' and made that a hashtag during the show".
The media specialist recollects that Modi even broke protocol to address President Obama by his first name at a joint media appearance when the then US president visited India as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade in January 2015.
"Ironically, Trump turned down the same invitation from the Modi government to grace the 2019 Republic Day event as the chief guest", Pal remarks.
The author notes that Joe Biden is likely to follow in Obama's footsteps and adopt a pragmatist political approach to India suggesting that despite the harsh criticism towards New Delhi's Kashmir policies voiced by Kamala Harris and Anthony Blinken, Biden's potential secretary of state, the next administration won't try to twist Modi's arm.
How US-India 'Camaraderie' May Affect Indo-Chinese Ties
Trump's Asia policy was marked by further rapprochement with New Delhi and chilling relations with Beijing. It appears that this trend will continue under a potential Biden administration, the Indian author believes.
"I don’t think Biden will tone down the aggression of the Trump administration while dealing with China. In fact, Biden is expected to play hardball with China if one closely follows his anti-China rhetoric towards the fag end of his presidential election campaign", Pal says. "Moreover, possible pick for the post of the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is also an old sub-continent hand, has already advocated for closer ties with India and has come down heavily on China after the Democrats outvoted Trump".
However, the future occupants of the White House are likely to adopt additional tools to exert pressure on Beijing. While exerting substantial pressure on China in terms of trade, freedom of navigation, and 5G equipment and intellectual property issues, Trump nevertheless did not bash Beijing over "human rights issues", something that the Democratic Party usually did. For instance, the US president did not meddle in Beijing's spat with Tibet and did not meet the Dalai Lama, the journalist notes.
"[In contrast] Biden did mention that he would like to meet the Buddhist spiritual leader and also press China to resume talks with Tibetans for 'meaningful autonomy'", he says.
The author expects that the Democratic Party may raise the rights issues over the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and engage China “from a position of strength", as they earlier promised.
"That may impact the India-China ties as the Chinese leadership may not like the intensifying US-India camaraderie while the Indian government understands the importance of having the world’s most powerful nation by their side, especially after the recent flare ups on the border", Pal suggests. "However, there are ample examples of both the Indian and the Chinese governments trying to mend fences through multi-level talks and diplomatic channels in the last few weeks".