It was nothing short of a miracle that President-elect Joe Biden could step forward to take the oath of office, on the morning of 20 January. It was the miracle of democracy.
Rarely has a well-established democracy like the US faced such a determined assault from within that shook its very foundation. Exactly a fortnight earlier, the delusional occupant of the White House had literally called on his followers to march towards the Capitol Hill, the sanctum sanctorum of democracy.
That it was a security failure of the highest order is obvious. But was it deliberate and orchestrated? The Biden administration will no doubt conduct a thorough probe, which would offer valuable lessons, to all open and liberal societies. All the same, it underscores the need, once again, for eternal vigil against divisive and disruptive forces, both internal and external.
The American society and polity are fractured, confused and angry. President Biden hit the right notes in his inaugural address, emphasising unity, racial harmony and equity. He repeatedly pledged to be the President for each and every American. But did his impassioned plea resonate with the right-wingers, who believe that their idol Donald Trump is the victim of a massive electoral fraud? It appears highly unlikely.
As expected, he primarily addressed his home front. He did note, however, that the world was watching the US. He assured, “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again ... to meet … today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead ... by the power of our example. We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”
President Biden did not mention any country in his address, yet ample pointers emerged regarding the new administration’s outlook on relations with India at the confirmation hearings of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Gen. Lloyd Austin.
Significantly, Blinken characterised the bilateral ties as a “bipartisan success story of our successive administrations”. He was not bashful of giving credit to the Trump regime for taking the defence cooperation forward, “including its concept of Indo-Pacific” to ensure that no country in the region “including China could challenge (India’s) sovereignty”. He added that the US shared India’s concerns about “terrorism”.
Singing a similar tune, General Austin, who retired as the Commander of the US Central Command after a long and distinguished career, spoke about elevating India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status and enhancing the “strong defence cooperation” to ensure that the militaries “can collaborate to address shared interests”. Emphasising continuity in approach, he promised to “deepen and broaden our defence cooperation ... through the QUAD security dialogue and other regional multilateral engagements.”
The nuances to note
At the same time, certain nuances need to be taken note of. Secretary Blinken termed Indo-Pacific a ‘concept’ while the Trump administration effectively considered it a ‘strategy’. Second, while endorsing “a tougher approach” towards China which posed “the most significant challenge” to American national interests, he did not fail to find “some cooperative” aspects of mutual interest. On the other hand, he saw ‘threats’ from Russia, Iran and North Korea which had to be countered.
During his hearing General Austin observed that Pakistan had taken “constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete… I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations”. He went on to remark that “Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan.”
Early mover’s advantage
India-US relations have been on a solid upward trajectory for the last two decades. There is every reason to believe that this trend will continue. President Biden, with his five decades of political experience, is an internationalist by inclination. He has also chosen an experienced and professional team that is well-versed in international affairs. The President as well as his cabinet colleagues have had a lot to do with India and have been supportive of closer ties. The White House, the ‘Foggy Bottom’ (state department) and the Pentagon are likely to adopt a geostrategic approach rather than a mercantilist one, adopted by the previous regime.
In the midst of rapidly growing convergences, some differences are natural. India’s decision to purchase S-400 missile system from Russia could remain a contentious issue. Democrats traditionally have been votaries of upholding human rights, religious freedoms etc., and tend to be preachy. Yet, given its own situation, the Biden administration may choose to hold its horses. India will do well to thrash out a trade deal expeditiously while the going is good. We should also take purposeful steps to expand and institutionalise the Quad process to shore up our security and thwart the expansionist designs of a neighbouring power.
Within minutes of Biden being sworn-in, Prime Minister Modi tweeted his felicitations, underling that the bilateral partnership was anchored on shared values. “We have a substantial and multifaceted bilateral agenda, growing economic engagement and vibrant people to people linkages. Committed to working with President @JoeBiden to take the India-US partnership to even greater heights”.
Prime Minister Modi had the best of equations with Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, two personalities who are as similar as chalk and cheese. A hat-trick is very much on the cards.