A chance to reset

What a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration in the United states presages for india and the world

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Dream team, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris during the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 2019 ELECTION US 2020.

When Joseph Robinette Biden Jr is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, he will be 78 years of age, already the oldest ever leader to hold that office. He will also have the distinction of winning the highest number of popular votes in the US presidential elections, ahead of even Barack Obama. Not bad for a former vice-president who was regarded as a has-been till he overtook the Democratic party’s frontrunners in the primaries to win the nomination. He then went on to win the presidency, defeating incumbent Donald Trump who had scornfully dismissed him as ‘Sleepy Joe’.

On the flip side, Biden will be leading a country that is deeply divided and polarised by the vote itself, and along more enduring fault-lines of race, class and geography. This at a time when the global Covid-19 pandemic has hit America the hardest with 9.5 million cases and 234,000 deaths as of November 5. It has already severely diminished the country’s economy, rendering over 20 million people jobless, a catastrophe that invites comparison with the Great Depression. Worse, Trump’s boast to ‘Make America Great Again’ has been reduced to ‘America Alone’. He quarrelled with America’s trusted allies, broke away from treaties and agreements, declined to be the global super-cop and conducted disruptive, tweet-driven diplomacy that has considerably undermined the status and stature of the world’s premier power. And all this while the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the process of de-globalisation the world over, increasing isolation and eroding individual liberties and freedoms.

So, Biden’s task for the next four years is pretty much cut out. But is he up to it? And what does his presidency mean for India and the world?

Saving Home

The answers to these questions lie in the forces that propelled Biden to the presidency. Before the elections, America faced what experts called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: the pandemic and the physical toll it took on Americans, the steep economic downturn it caused, the deep racial divisions triggered by heavy-handed and often bigoted policing, and the growing sense of social injustice felt across the country. If Biden finally won the US election, it was not because people totally rejected Trump’s policies, as the president did win a high percentage of the popular vote. The nation embraced Biden because he seemed to have a better plan to pull the nation out of its health and economic woes and was regarded as more of a unifying force than Trump to heal some of the deep wounds across the country.

Sure footing: US President Donald Trump at his campaign rally in Lumberton, North Carolina in October.

Biden, despite his penchant for and expertise on foreign policy, is likely to spend most of his tenure focusing on solving critical domestic issues. How strong a president he will make may be determined by whether the Democrats can wrest control of the Senate from the Republicans and retain control of the House of Representatives. If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, it will considerably cramp Biden’s style and speed of decision-making. That’s because this important wing of the Congress confirms key appointments, including the president’s cabinet secretaries and judges of the Supreme Court, apart from ratifying bills and approving treaties. Biden’s advantage is that he has been senator for 36 years and has good rapport across the aisles as well as a reputation for securing bipartisan support on key issues.

Biden is also seen as more of a restorer than a reformer or transformer. Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, who had interacted with him when he held office, describes him as “a decent human being, more of a kind uncle rather than a bright shiny object. We know about him, what his limitations are and that he will try his best to do the job”. A former Senate foreign relations committee chairman, Biden impressed most wonks with his prescience on key international issues confronting the US. As vice-president, he had pushed for a lighter footprint strategy in Afghanistan. Sameer Lalwani, Krepon’s colleague at Stimson, says, “Those involved spoke highly of Biden’s decision-making ability and strategic grasp of the big picture. They said it was not just instinctive but came from his deep study of a problem. His dispassionate assessment and his courage to pursue counter-conventional wisdom made him an effective leader.”

Now, Biden will have to bring these skills to bear on the crucial domestic issues his country faces. On top of the list is containing the third wave of the pandemic. Unlike Trump, Biden is a passionate advocate of wearing masks and social distancing measures. There are concerns, though, that he may resort to frequent lockdowns to curtail its spread and hurt the economy. To provide better health facilities, Biden is likely to restore the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which Trump negated while failing to provide an alternative. Biden’s plan is to give the elderly better healthcare at lower cost, a move that won him support across an ageing nation where a third of the population is above 60 years of age.

For the economy, Biden will focus heavily on improving the state of America’s burgeoning middle class, which has emerged as the backbone of the country and is now considered his main support base. Unlike Trump, who favoured a fossil fuel-driven revival of the economy, Biden has boldly pushed for clean technology and promises an energy revolution that will create 10 million jobs, including a massive expansion in infrastructure. For boosting the manufacturing sector, the president-elect is championing a ‘Buy American’ programme (which sounds suspiciously like Trump’s ‘America First’) that calls for $400 billion worth of government purchases of US manufactured goods and services and an additional $300 billion to fund new research and development in key technology areas.

To fund his promised $700 billion expansion plans for the economy, Biden plans to raise taxes on the super-rich apart from corporate houses. To win over the big constituency of Left-leaning Democrats, Biden has also committed to double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider voting on such a bill passed by the House of Representatives last year, citing the higher costs it would impose on business. Biden also plans to strengthen labour-friendly laws. Both proposals are designed to attract the votes of the vast band of supporters of Bernie Sanders, a leader of the Democrats’ far left, whom he defeated in the primaries.

Return of the Global Boss

What is clear is that Biden’s domestic economic plans will heavily influence his conduct of foreign policy. He is determined to undo the harm he believes Trump brought to America’s international interests. On Biden’s first day in office, he “will get on the phone to key allies and say that America is back and America has your back”, Brian McKeon, his foreign policy advisor, told CNN in an interview in September. McKeon added that Trump “had poked his finger in the eye of all our friends and allies, and he has embraced every autocrat in the world we have lost all our friends”.

Ashley Tellis, the senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs, agrees with this assessment and says that topping the list of Trump’s liabilities is “the total repudiation of America’s traditional role in global relations and a complete disinterest in protecting the global systems that the US had built from the end of the second world war”. Next, Tellis cites the brusque and transactional manner in the way Trump treated America’s close alliances and key friendships in Europe and East Asia. Likewise, Trump’s failure to support international institutions that the US built to economise the use of hard power and enhance its global standing, most recently evidenced by walking out of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Unlike Trump, who believed in conducting diplomacy over tweets and shifted his stand rapidly on issues, Biden is expected to be less volatile and more consistent in his foreign policy. Shivshankar Menon, who was the national security advisor in the Manmohan Singh government, recalls that Biden, as vice president, pushed hard to persuade Obama to follow through on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Menon believes that Biden is a process-driven leader who will hire top professionals or competent political representatives to man his administration and rely on them for advice. This is in contrast to Trump of whom he says: “There is really no Trump administration below Trump.” Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to the US who dealt with the Trump administration, agrees with Menon. “I used to walk down ghost corridors in key government departments where there was nobody in the rooms for months,” he recalls. “With Biden, we will have less unpredictability and more people to talk to.”

Biden’s commitment to put America back at the head of the table on key global issues will be welcomed not just by India but by much of the world. Especially his statement that he will reverse Trump’s decision to walk out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement which Barack Obama had signed in 2015 when Biden was his vice-president. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, had backed the agreement and India was dismayed when Trump reneged on the commitments the US had made to cut its emissions, provide funds to needy countries and share clean technology. Biden has also signalled that he will get the US to renegotiate the deal to get Iran to give up its nuclear weapons plan, which Trump had broken away from. Trump had imposed economic sanctions on any country that was purchasing oil from Iran, including India. On Afghanistan, though, Biden is on the same page as Trump and will want to pull back American troops.

What India will watch with particular interest is how Biden deals with an aggressive China. Trump followed a haphazard policy on China, focusing largely on reducing the unfavourable trade balance between them. But he was blunt enough to call out China as a political rival and competitor and aggressively took it on for its expansionist policy in the final months of his presidency. China, meanwhile, exposed itself with its lack of transparency and manipulation of facts on the Covid pandemic, its aggressive, arrogant and expansionist behaviour not just with India but with others across the South China Sea, and its wolf warrior diplomacy that used social media as a stealth weapon against its opponents. The Trump administration offered all support to India in dealing with Chinese aggression on the Line of Actual Control. Biden has made it clear that he is against an expansionist China and has even described Xi Jinping as “a thug”, saying “he doesn’t have a ‘democratic with a small d’ bone in his body”. Biden, therefore, is likely to continue to extend support to India in its standoff against China.

However, the new president will have to engage with China when America rejoins the Paris Climate Change Agreement to push Xi to deliver on his country’s commitments. In addition, he remains aware that the American economy is still deeply intertwined with and dependent on China and will avoid a debilitating confrontation with it. Instead, he has talked about building a coalition of democracies, with India as a key player, to put pressure on China to observe a rules-based international order, freedom of navigation and the law of the sea. As a Biden aide said in a press interview, “It’s a possible geopoli-tical gang-up against China. We need to rally the demo-cratic world together. It cannot be a race to the bottom like a new Cold War.” India, for its part, says Tanvi Madan, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, “wants the US to have ‘a Goldilocks approach’ for putting pressure on China. Not to press too hard to make the situation go out of control and not too little to be ineffective in containing China”.

Should India worry?

When it comes to relations with the US, India is currently in a sweet spot. Post our nuclear tests in 1998, when relations between the two countries touched a nadir, there has been a steady upward trend, which has gathered even more momentum and substance in recent years. This has happened through three Republican and three Democratic governments and spanning the terms of four presidents, indicating strong bipartisan support. South Block is secretly relieved that they will not have to put up with Trump’s yo-yo diplomatic style any more, though Modi had learnt to play the current US president well. Biden’s job will be to build on the strong foundation already in place. Aparna Pande, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says: “Indo-US relations are going to see continuity in terms of the upswing that we have seen in the past two decades, though Biden may not follow the quid pro quo approach that Trump did.”

Yet, despite the stability and growth of the Indo-US relationship, concerns remain. Defence cooperation has been the spearhead of the relations between the two countries. The US has not only recognised India as a major defence partner but has also cleared the sale of advanced defence technology, a status accorded only to its closest allies. The past two decades have seen a major growth in US defence sales to India, amounting to close to $20 billion, with more on the anvil. Now that the two countries have signed four foundational agreements (the last one was signed a week before the US elections), the links between their militaries are expected to grow further. However, as Tellis points out, “Defence may be the strongest arrow in the quiver, but India’s a la carte approach on issues is under watch. There is a sense that India needs to step up to the plate and do a lot more.” The US is dismayed by India’s low defence budget of 1.6 per cent of its GDP and its unwillingness to go beyond joint military exercises in its support.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Joe Biden, then US vice president, during a luncheon at the US State Department in Washington D.C. in 2014
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Biden in 2015 at the Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland

While Biden will continue to strengthen the defence alliance, trade relations had run into rough weather under Trump’s regime. Dubbing India as “the tariff king”, he wanted India to not only lower tariffs but also reduce the $28.9 billion trade deficit. Trump withdrew the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which permitted India to sell over 2,000 goods worth around $6.3 billion duty free to the US, and raised tariffs on steel and aluminium. India retaliated by raising import duty tariffs on over 28 US-manufactured goods. The two sides failed to strike an early harvest trade deal despite a summit meeting between Trump and Modi in February. The US remains concerned with India’s growing protectionism and its Atmanirbhar Bharat drive. Biden is likely to push India to open out its markets more to American companies to arrest the manufacturing slide that the US is currently facing.

Madan of Brookings Institution believes that given the inclination of the US and other countries to reduce their dependence on China, India should move quickly to build global value chains to corner some of that business. The country will become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for a two-year term beginning January 2021 and India will be chairing the G20 in 2022. In May, India was elected chair of the WHO’s executive board for a period of three years. Madan urges “India to seize the moment”, build resilience and expand its sphere of influence and power. Biden is keen to prevent China from converting the Asian century into a purely Chinese one. It would be in America’s interest to foster India’s rise to counterbalance China. On immigration, Biden is unlikely to resort to the kind of executive orders that Trump used to put restrictions on skilled Indian workers migrating to the US. India has to make Biden understand that its diaspora is the umbilical cord that strengthens relations with the US, and any hostile immigration policy will be detrimental to the cause.

Where the Modi government is likely to feel pressure from the Biden administration is on the issues of human rights, treatment of minorities and on religious tolerance. Trump gave India a pass on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the US, along with France, prevented China from taking the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir to the UN Security Council. But Biden and the Democratic Party feel strongly about human rights issues, though, as president, Biden is more likely to discuss his concerns, if any, in private conversations rather than in public. Stimson’s Lalwani says when the US talks of shared values, including a vibrant democracy, it upholds India as a model in contrast to the authoritarian and intolerant rule in China. One of the reasons India has been able to build a broad-based constituency in the US is because its political class views us as a liberal democracy, its business sees us as a large market and the strategist community views us as a counterweight to China. He points out, “US administrations believe that India has the national endowment in terms of geography, demography and military capability to play a heavyweight role in the Asian region. But beyond that, there is an expectation that it should be a liberal democratic anchor of the region that is politically stable to be a strong counterpoint to the Chinese model. The entire controversy over the CAA did raise questions in certain influential circles in the US.”

When it comes to dealing with Pakistan, the Biden administration is unlikely to go back to the old days of deeper engagement with it or hyphenating it with India. That’s because if the Afghanistan pullout goes through, Pakistan’s equity will considerably lessen. As Krepon says, “In terms of salience, the LoC has given way to the LAC, given China’s recent aggression.” But it does suit India for the US to stay engaged with Pakistan so that it can continue to apply pressure on Islamabad not to behave irresponsibly and to curb cross-border terrorism.

The Kamala Connection

One of the big reasons that the Biden presidential campaign drew more than usual attention in India was his choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris, whose mother came from India and father from Jamaica, enjoys the unique position of being regarded by both Americans of Indian origin and African Americans as one of their own. Her nomination strengthened the support for the Democratic Party among the 1 million-odd voters of Indian origin. When she is sworn in as vice-president on January 20, she will be the first woman of colour to occupy the post.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE : (from left to right) US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, ahead of the India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in New Delhi on October 27, 2020

There have been concerns in some quarters that, as vice-president, she may raise questions about human rights violations in Kashmir. Last year, two months after the Indian government had abrogated Article 370, in answer to a media question, she said, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.” Harris also expressed concern about foreign minister S. Jaishankar cancelling a scheduled meeting with some members of Congress when he was informed that Pramila Jayapal, a US Congresswoman of Indian origin, was to attend it. Jayapal had earlier moved a resolution critical of the Modi government’s handling of Kashmir that failed to pass in the House of Representatives.

Opinion is divided on whether Harris will be good for India or become a pressure point. Menon believes her Indian origin will make Kamala come down on India even harder in order to prove her objectivity and Americanness. Others, like Pande of the Hudson Institute, believe that she will be preoccupied with other domestic issues, and that foreign policy will be the president’s domain. However, having been vice-president, Biden just may decide to delegate a lot more authority to her, as Obama did to him. Pande adds a caveat, though: “The president is all-powerful, whatever Biden did as vice-president, it was always regarded as being the Obama presidency.”

Harris’s advantage is that she checks all the right boxes: she is more liberal and progressive than Biden. She is part of the rainbow coalition in America, which is becoming increasingly important in the country as it undergoes massive demo-graphic changes. She brings a great amount of energy and intelligence to the office. Those who know her say she has the political savvy to grow into the job. Though she may not be an expert on foreign policy and security issues, she is said to be a quick learner and shows obvious promise. Krepon believes that given Biden’s age, he is likely to be a one-term president and he may groom her to contest for the presidency after his term is over. Krepon says: “Everyone will be watching carefully how Kamala grows into her power. She is the president-in-waiting.” It is appropriate that India welcomes her as one of our own. n

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