A hard-fought, close contest for the US election headed the Democrat way. Joe Biden is the new president of the United States of America. So, is India set to deal with a new administration after the overt bonhomie between outgoing President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
Sensing the mood on the ground, India has been preparing for a possible change in the White House. Indian Ambassador in the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, has been holding meetings with Congressmen from the Democratic party. Some of these meetings were public knowledge, some were behind the scenes.
India’s mission in the US engaged with two crucial men of Indian-origin who were part of the Obama administration in the past – Vivek H Murthy and Raj Shah. Murthy has also played a critical role in Biden’s campaign and is expected to get a position in his administration too. Murthy was Obama’s youngest surgeon general in 2014.
Rajiv ‘Raj’ Shah, too, played an important role in the Obama administration and is considered significant in being able to push India-focussed initiatives with the new administration if needed. He served as Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, and as Chief Scientist at the US Department of Agriculture. He also served as the 16th Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) till 2015.
Ambassador Sandhu has also engaged with the Congressional Black Caucus. This group of African-American Congressional members included Kamala Harris. Harris is biracial with a Jamaican father and Indian mother.
Some of Sandhu’s very publicly announced meetings in the last six months were also with Democrats. He met House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel in July. After the meeting, he tweeted saying Engel is “a strong proponent of India - US relations. We discussed the strategic partnership as well as scientific collaborations particularly in the area of medicine and vaccines & avenues for further diversification”.
He also met Indian-American democrat in the House of Representatives Ami Bera who was the Chairman Sub Committee on Asia. After his meeting, he said in a tweet: “Shared perspectives on India’s proactive COVID approach and enhanced India-US partnership in health, sciences and supply chains.”
Ami Bera was touted to win the election again and he has indeed made his way back to the US Congress.
Apart from Bera, Democratic nominee of Indian-origin Pramila Jaypal has also been re-elected to the US Congress. This one relationship has not particularly been good for the Indian government. The discomfort became pretty obvious when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar even refused to meet a group of Congress members last year during his US visit because of Jaypal who introduced a resolution urging India to lift restrictions in Kashmir post the abrogation of Article 370.
Jaishankar later said, “I am aware of that resolution. I don’t think it is fair understanding of the situation in J&K or fair characterization of what the Government of India is doing. I have no interest in meeting her.”
Democratic presidential aspirants at that time Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had backed Jayapal. So did senator Kamala Harris. Harris also said that they are watching the situation in Kashmir closely. Following this, the Citizenship Amendment Act also received a sharp response from the Democrats. The stand of the Democrats sent out a message to the Indian government that engaging with a possible Democrat President would not be that easy.
Moreover, Prime Minister Modi’s slogan “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar” at the Howdy Modi event in Houston last year was criticized by the opposition for creating possible trouble for India if a Democrat nominee made it to the White House.
“Our relationship with the United States of America have throughout been bipartisan, vis-à-vis Republicans and Democrats. Your actively campaigning for Trump is a breach of both India and America as sovereign nations and democracies,” Congress leader Anand Sharma had tweeted.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic, an anti-China sentiment and the current tension at the LAC changed the situation. The strategic partnership with India overtook all other issues for the US.
While the Trump administration showed open backing for India, on being asked whether this would remain in case of a change of administration, a senior US administration official told News18.com, “I fully expect – have no reason to believe that in the event of there being a new administration following the upcoming elections here in the United States that the policy with regard to India would change. I think both parties are largely aligned on their interest in supporting and deepening the partnership.”
Indian government sources also said that they believe the US approach towards India has been bipartisan and will continue to be so. They also pointed out statements made by Joe Biden since August 15 this year. Addressing a virtual campaign event to commemorate India’s Independence Day, Biden had said that he would stand with India to confront the threats it faces in its own region and along its borders. He also promised to expand trade and take on challenges like climate change together.
In fact, when Trump referred to India’s air as “filthy” in the last presidential debate in Nashville, Biden tweeted saying: “It’s not how you talk about friends and it’s not how you solve global challenges like climate change."
Sources point to all these signals as indication that the Indian government will be able to strike a good working relationship with the Biden administration. Government sources have pointed out that engagement with the new administration will start with the transition team, which reaches out to diplomats of various countries.
The transition team works for three months between the November elections and January inauguration.
When Trump was elected president in 2016, then foreign secretary S Jaishankar had gone to Washington DC within weeks to reach out to Trump’s top aides. Sources didn’t rule out such a visit again this time, but added that it was too early to comment.