US elections: Joe Biden’s historic mandate will be welcomed in India, say experts

November 8, 2020 1:50 PM

Unfortunately for the US and the rest of the world, the high level of political polarization among the American people will persist. Biden will find it very hard to govern as an effective President in the near future.

Indian policymakers will be most keenly watching how President Biden approaches China. (File image: IE)

By Bappaditya Mukherjee and Rajan Kumar

The Democratic candidate Joseph Biden has received a historic mandate in the recently concluded US Presidential election. Biden’s opponent, the Republican incumbent President Trump has openly cast doubt on the fairness of the US electoral process. His campaign officials have mounted a series of legal challenges questioning the integrity of the electoral process in several states. Most political commentators concur that the real objective of these legal manoeuvres is to derail and cast doubt in the process rather than a pursuit of justice and fairness. Even a number of current and former Republican elected officials have openly stated that absent some dramatic piece of evidence supporting Trump’s claim of electoral fraud, these legal challenges will come to a nought in the courts. Therefore, presuming that these legal efforts of President Trump fail, Biden would become the next president.

Unfortunately for the US and the rest of the world, the high level of political polarization among the American people will persist. Biden will find it very hard to govern as an effective President in the near future. The resistance to his policy initiatives is likely to be very fierce. The distribution of the votes in this US Presidential election has confirmed that Trumpism is a tangible, nationwide political movement whose adherents have a cult-like affinity with their leader, Donald Trump. This political coalition can be re-mobilized for resisting the Biden administration and targeting disloyal Republicans. It is a safe bet that Biden will have his hands full contending with the Make America Great Again (MAGA) coalition during his term in office.

One can conjecture that most of the opposition to Biden from Congress and citizens groups aligned with MAGA will focus on derailing his domestic political initiatives such as stimulus spending related to COVID, immigration reform, health care and student loan debt forgiveness. If Republicans retain control of the Senate along with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, Biden will be institutionally constrained from passing any meaningful legislation. The bottom line is that it is futile to expect a return to normalcy in US domestic politics as candidate Biden had promised during the Presidential campaign.

Implications for India

Biden’s victory will not change the trajectory of US relations with India. It is extremely unlikely that Biden will continue Trump’s transactional America First policies. Multilateralism, in a slightly altered form, may make a comeback. From India’s perspective, the good news is that the Biden administration is likely to continue a number of positive policy initiatives that are the legacy of prior administrations. For example, US-India defence cooperation is a unique policy space of bipartisan consensus in American politics.

Major defence cooperation agreements signed during the Trump era will continue under Biden. The stability of India-US defence cooperation was reinforced by the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation – the last of the three key foundational agreements between the two countries. The earlier agreement, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed in 2016, allowed both nations to use each other’s designated military facilities. In addition, India and the US signed a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018. The signing of the BECA a week before a highly contentious election in the US is evidence of the confidence of both sides to credibly commit to its provisions.

On the eve of the Trump visit, the US had approved the sale of Integrated Air Defence Weapon System worth $ 1.87 billion as well as naval helicopters at a cost of $ 2.6 billion with advanced surveillance capabilities. Bilateral trade agreements in the defence sectors have reached roughly $15 billion since 2008, making the US the biggest exporter of weapons to India. The comparable figure for the entire pre-2008 period was a mere $500 million. With such high stakes, a Biden administration is unlikely to rock the boat of US defence partnership with India.

Although the buoyant US-India defence relationship is expected to remain on the upswing under Biden, trends in trade ties are not very promising. Trade relations amounted to roughly $142.6 billion in 2018, with India having a trade surplus of about $25.2 billion. The Trump administration had taken Indian off the list of developing countries in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) last year, which has hurt the competitiveness of Indian exporters within the US market. It is estimated that this decision will impose a direct and indirect cost of almost 260 million dollars on the Indian economy. Citing India’s membership in the G-20 group of nations, the Trump administration defended the move saying that India no longer merits special considerations that are reserved for low-income countries.

Compared to the economic nationalism of the Trump administration, Biden’s economic team is more likely to be oriented towards the ideological principles of neoliberalism and free trade. This may lead to more promising times ahead in India-US trade ties. However, negotiators on both sides will have to show considerable skill and maturity to overcome some of the sticking points. For example, India will be under pressure to reduce barriers to the entry of American agricultural and dairy products into the Indian market. In return, the Biden administration should concede to the Indian demand and grant market access for its agricultural products.

India-US commercial ties will improve immensely if Biden relaxes the visa regime pertaining to H1-B and F-1 that applies to foreign working professionals and students respectively. These were tightened severely during the Trump era leading to severe dislocation in the business process operations, research institutes and universities that rely on international human collaboration.

Rescuing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, is near the top of Biden’s foreign policy priority list. He has said that he would re-enter the deal once Iran returns to compliance, and use it as the basis on which to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting deal with Iran. India will welcome this development and it may create an additional avenue for behind the scenes cooperation with the US to resuscitate the JCPOA. When the JCPOA was signed during the Obama administration, India had expected that this would align with its strategic investments in the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Both these projects are critical to India’s strategic objective to access Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia by bypassing Pakistan. Hence, India would be hoping Biden’s plans to revive the JCPOA are followed through.

Indian policymakers will be most keenly watching how President Biden approaches China. It is no secret that India was very pleased with Trump’s blustering approach in taking on China. India received tacit US support during the border confrontation with China earlier this year. More significantly, The Democratic Party’s Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee had commented at the time, “China is demonstrating once again that it is willing to bully its neighbours rather than resolve conflicts according to international law”. This shows that the US’ antipathy towards China is bipartisan. As Daniel Baer in the magazine Foreign Policy recently wrote, Biden’s China policy will appear far more sober in comparison to Trump. However, this does not mean that Biden will be any less tough on China than Trump.

Finally, it must be said that the prosperous and politically influential Indian-American community will continue to be a source of continuity and stability in US-India relations. All the four Indian-American Democratic lawmakers — Dr Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi — have been re-elected to the US House of Representatives. This group of Indian House representatives might grow with at least one more as a Democratic candidate, physician Dr HiralTipirneni, who is currently leading against her Republican incumbent. While this is a welcome development, India must not overstate its significance. The fealty of these representatives would remain, above all else, to their respective House districts. Moreover, their foreign policy interests would also reflect that of their constituents and may not align with the foreign policy interests of India.

(Dr. Bappaditya Mukherjee is a former Assistant Professor of International Relations at State University of New York at Geneseo. Dr Rajan Kumar teaches in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal).

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