The Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has kicked off. At the end of the three-day event Joe Biden will be formally announced as the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate for the elections in November.
Joe Biden’s decision to nominate California Senator and his one-time presidential rival, Kamala Harris, as his vice-presidential running mate has added a sense of excitement to an otherwise dull US Presidential campaign. It is a historic choice as we have been repeatedly told with Harris being the first Black woman and the first Asian American to be nominated for a major party’s presidential ticket. In an election year shaped by nationwide protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, it was important for the Democrats to reach out the African American community and Harris’ nomination is expected to consolidate the community behind Biden.
Black voters are likely to be critical not only in battleground states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin but also in Republican-leaning southern states like Georgia and Florida which seems to have become competitive this year. Harris also allows Biden to connect to the young whose aspirations a 77-year-old Presidential candidate perhaps may not fully reflect and articulate. This age factor has also led to speculation that Biden may serve only one term, making Harris a potential top contender for the nomination in 2024.
In so many ways, Biden may have energized his base with this decision and for America there is much to rejoice and celebrate irrespective of the final outcome of the Presidential elections.
But what is disconcerting is the way Harris’ nomination has engendered a vacuous debate in India about the future of India-US relations and what she brings to the table, if at all anything. For a nation that proclaims to be a self-confident, rising power, this discussion around Kamala Harris has revealed our fundamental weakness – a weakness that always views India as a nation that will be shaped by the actions of others as opposed to one which has the ability to shape the behavior of others.
Tom-tomming Harris’ India lineage does justice neither to India own aspirations nor to Harris who has never been shy of identifying herself first and foremost as Black – “I’m black, and I’m proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black,” she has said. There is little evidence of her underscoring her India connection in the way her politics has emerged over the years. And we should respect that and not impose our sensitivities on to her.
At the end of the day, Kamala Harris has emerged a formidable American politician playing by the rules of the American politics and all she should be expected to do is to take care of American interests. What we should have been doing is to assess her on her foreign policy track record, not her Indian connection.
Harris does not have much of a track record on foreign policy which makes it difficult to predict future positions from her past performance and national security is not her strong suit. She has been vague on foreign policy during her campaign and was not able to articulate a larger vision of American foreign policy. On most issues, she seemed to have standard Democratic positions such as according to her “the greatest U.S. foreign policy accomplishment has been the post-war community of international institutions, laws, and democratic nations we helped to build.”
It can safely be assumed that Biden with his long record on foreign policy and national security will be in the driver’s seat. And he has indicated that if elected, his administration will stand with New Delhi in confronting the threats it faces and has called for strengthening the “bond” between India and the US. In an attempt to woo the Indian American community, his campaign has already underlined that the Biden administration, if elected, will reform the H-1B visa system and work towards eliminating the country-quota for green cards. On the other hand, Trump has claimed that he has more support from Indian-origin voters than Kamala Harris, thereby signaling renewed jockeying for the influential community.
But this is happening because the Indian American community has become adept at using their influence to further their agenda. And more importantly, irrespective of the parties, India has become a valuable partner for Washington to be courted on a sustained basis. Past record of Harris on India-related issues suggests that she has taken positions on some issues which went against official Indian policies.
After the abrogation of Article 370, she is quoted as saying: “We have to remind the Kashmiri people that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.” She was also critical of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s decision not to attend a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, because of the presence of Pramila Jayapal who had introduced a resolution on Kashmir in the House which Jaishankar had dismissed as not “a fair characterisation of what the government of India is doing.”
But for a country like India these kind of episodes are par for the course. Neither Harris’ pronouncements above nor her Indian lineage should concern us. What should concern us is how we in India have not been able to come to terms with our nation’s rise. We want to shape global outcomes but don’t allow for the possibility that India today has the ability to influence the behavior of others.
American foreign policy agenda will be shaped by the fundamental realities shaping the US in the 21st century. And when it comes to India-US relations, personalities have tended to become peripheral long back. Barack Obama had come to office with a standard set of narrative about India, from non-proliferation to Kashmir. On all such issues he wanted to challenge New Delhi. By the time he left office, he had been converted and was one of India’s greatest friends. Donald Trump had also come to office after a campaign in which India, along with China, was a constant target and was willing to be transactional. And yet after four years, Indo-US relations have not only grown, they have been able to come off much better than America’s ties with some of its closest allies.
If the Biden-Harris ticket wins in November, India-US ties will be shaped not by Harris being half Indian or by her previous statements on Kashmir but by the structural realties that confront Washington and New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Everything else is just a momentary distraction.
This article was first published in ORF.