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The Big Picture: Change of climate

A little over a year ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood in front of a crowd of 50,000 people in a stadium in Houston, Texas, just as the US election turbine was whirring up. “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar,” he declared, meaning roughly, “this time, it’s Trump’s turn”. The phrase was an adaptation of Modi’s own electoral campaign slogan, one that Trump had himself used in an ad targeted at Indian-American voters in 2016.

Its significance was undeniable. Modi’s team would later scramble to insist that the Indian prime minister had not endorsed Trump ahead of the 2020 elections. Yet it was impossible to see the choice of that phrase, and indeed the entire “Howdy Modi” event followed by a repeat “Namaste Trump” performance in India earlier this year as anything but a tacit endorsement of the Republican candidate.

The Houston event in particular did three things:

  • Offered a reminder of how popular Modi still was among the diaspora, whose support he has always heavily courted;
  • Reiterated the Trump-Modi connection, with the US President relying on the Indian prime minister to appeal for support to the small-but-influential Indian-Americans community, and;
  • Raised concerns that Modi was leaning too far towards Trump, putting at risk the bipartisan consensus in the US that favours better ties with India.

Where do things stand a year later?

First, on Modi’s popularity: Take a look at the report, co-authored by researchers Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav, on the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey. The “nationally representative online survey of 936 Indian-American citizens”, conducted in partnership with the research analytics firm YouGov, found that Modi remains very popular in the community.

Across the board, Indian-Americans have a favourable opinion of Modi, and 48% of those surveyed said they approved of the job that he has done as prime minister. The survey makes it clear that there is a partisan preference here: Indian-American Trump voters are much more likely to have a much more favourable view of Modi than Democrats are.

Which takes us to the second point, on whether the Trump-Modi bonhomie has boosted the US president’s support among Indian-Americans. The AAPI Data survey from earlier in this month seemed to suggest so, with the results showing the bulk of support going to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But there is a bump in voter preference for Trump compared to 2016.

This led to the narrative that many had been drawn to the Republican side because of Trump’s repeated reminders of his relationship with Modi and efforts by a vocal set of Indian-American supporters who claimed the Biden administration would be anti-India – because Democrats had asked questions about the Citizenship Act amendments and Kashmir.

The IAAS survey seems to conclusively refute this.

Not only do its results show an overwhelming support for Biden among Indian-Americans, it offers no evidence of any major shift between 2016 and 2020. Moreover, when asked what issues are most important to Indian-American voters, the question of US-India ties tends to show up at the very bottom of the list.

Finally, one very interesting datapoint from the survey looks at why Indian-Americans broadly prefer the Democrats over the Republican party. The responses suggest that some of the things that Trump has most publically embraced about the party, in which he otherwise does not fit comfortably, are the same reasons that Indian-Americans stay away from it.

Read the whole report here.

And you can read more on the subject on Scroll Global, our section for Indians abroad (follow us on Twitter and Facebook).

Of course, it is important to remember that the Indian-American population is still a very small, albeit wealthy and influential, subset of the US. This means that bending in either direction may not have had much of an impact on the overall race. Nevertheless, it is interesting for those who follow politics in both the countries.

This brings us to the third point: What does Modi’s open embrace of Trump mean for Indo-US relations if the Democrats come to power?

The latter scenario now seems increasingly likely. Analysts and observers in the US are still being cautious, in part because of the surprise of 2016, when polls favoured Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and failed to see Trump’s path to a victory in America’s convoluted electoral college system, even though he had received 2.87 million votes fewer.

FiveThirtyEight’s distillation of national polls however, shows a rather steady 10 point lead for Biden over Trump, heading into the final days of the campaign, with millions having already voted by mail.

If Trump were to return to power, despite these numbers, the expectations for India are likely to be similar to the last four years. Close ties between Modi and Trump that at times seem better for the politicians than the populations, a continued focus on China leading to deeper military and strategic cooperation, and an at-times transactional relationship with struggles over questions of trade and market access.

What about a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris White House?

Trump-Modi supporters in the US have pushed the line that, because of opinions expressed in the Democratic camp, a Biden presidency would be extremely critical of Modi’s majoritarian moves. This, they claim, would lead to a downgrade in ties between the two. Modi critics in India, meanwhile, contend that the Indian prime minister’s clear preference for Trump may lead to a cold response from Biden, despite an Indian-American in the White House.

Neither of these seems likely to be the case.

The big question will be what line Biden and Harris take on China. This is the one foreign policy issue that many in the Democratic camp believe the Trump administration confronted better than earlier presidents.

While some believe that a section of the Democrats may call for better cooperation with China to take on the climate change challenge, this Wall Street Journal analysis like many others suggests that Biden would continue treating Beijing as America’s greatest challenge.

“I think there is a broad recognition in the Democratic Party that Trump was largely accurate in diagnosing China’s predatory practices,” said Kurt Campbell, top Asia official in former President Barack Obama’s State Department and senior adviser to the Biden team, to the Journal.

Even if the focus on China is reduced, there has been remarkable continuity across US administrations for two decades that India is an important partner for the country. With even the most polarising president in decades sticking to this consensus – outside of the occasional complaint about tarriffs on Harley Davidsons – it is likely that whoever is in the White House will continue working closely with New Delhi.

And it is worthwhile remembering that Modi hugged Obama before he embraced Trump.

Some actually believe that a Biden administration maintaining focus on China might be even more effective – and better for India – since the former vice president has promised to go back to a methodical process of working with allies and building coalitions.

Nicholas Burns and Anja Manuel, two advisers to the Biden campaign with deep roots in the State Department, wrote in the Hill this week calling for an upgrade in relations with India.

“The time has come for the U.S. and India to think more ambitiously about the future strategic partnership between the world’s two most important democracies.

Militarily, the US and India should deepen and accelerate their naval and air force cooperation in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. There is more the two also can do alongside Japan and Australia during the next year. The Quad’s aim should be to strengthen military cohesiveness among the four, to defend the rights of democracies and limit China’s military ambitions…

India and the US will not be formal treaty allies and will disagree on important issues from time to time. But India’s rise to political, economic and military power in its region is of immense strategic importance to the U.S. It is in our interest to expand our work with India for the pivotal role we both will play in a free and open Indo-Pacific for the decades ahead.”

Read also Raj Bhala’s analysis for how a Biden-Harris administration would approach India.

Despite all this, there is likely to be an impact on how Modi’s team operates in a world where Trump is no longer the template. Stunts like India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar refusing to meet a Democratic politician just because she has been critical of the country would not go down as well with a Biden-Harris administration.

There will certainly be more criticism of Modi’s majoritarian moves, in Kashmir and elsewhere, if not from the White House then from the Democrats who have influence over it. While Biden is unlikely to downgrade ties with India, the Modi narrative – of illiberal nationalism in the Trumpian mould – will likely receive much more scrutiny.

Or, as Sushil Aaron put it,

“The Biden presidency will thus, for a variety of reasons, lend its hand to liberalism in its fight against nativism worldwide. It is the kind of scenario that figures like Modi will get thrown into higher relief on the world stage. Modi will encounter a State Department that will again have a say in the national security process in Washington – and its officials will have plenty to say on developments in India drawing on impressions from diplomats based in Delhi (and Islamabad).”

Harder to quantify is the effect of having an Indian-American in the White House. Biden has made it clear that he is a transitional candidate. If he wins this year, he is unlikely to run for a second term in 2024 – when he will be 82.

A Democratic victory may, as a result, not just put an Indian-American in the White House but put Kamala Harris best placed to contend for the top spot in four years time. Other than dire repercussions for British scholars who criticise idlis, it is far too early to predict what that may mean. But if the polls are right and Democrats do take back the presidency on November 3, expect that speculation to begin very soon.

Flotsam and Jetsam

  • After the impression of “insider trading” from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar, which we wrote about last week, the party has tried to course-correct, sending a clearer message that it is behind Chief Minister Nitish Kumar – amid fears that tying themselves too closely to him may also endanger the outcome. Elections will be held in three phases: October 28, November 3 and November 7. The results come on November 10.
  • Last week, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari criticised Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for being “secular”, as if it were a bad thing. And an online mob forced jewelry brand Tanishq to withdraw an ad that showed a happy Hindu-Muslim marriage. As Ipsita Chakravarty wrote, “Indians made some dark choices this week about the kind of republic they want.”
  • India and China are discussing disengagement of troops and tanks from along the Line of Actual Control, as they have been for months. The situation however, appears to remain “on a hair-trigger”.
  • After holding off for months and months, the Centre finally caved to demands from Opposition states and said that it would borrow the amount of compensation that it was legally required to provide to states as part of the Goods and Services Tax compromise. Still, the move is only a halfway house. As Shoaib Daniyal writes, the whole sequence raises questions about the structures that upholding Indian federalism.
  • In case you missed it, I spoke to Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research, on the topic of federalism and centralisation under Modi on the Friday Q&A edition of this newsletter.

Can’t make this up

The very first paragraph of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s new book about India’s strategic policy seems to include an uncomfortably direct assertion about Indian leaders being oblivious to threats, even as their land is being invaded.

Meanwhile, another invasion appeared to be taking place in Uttar Pradesh, where residents thought an alien being was attempting something strange over a canal in Bhatta Parsaul.

This is what it looked like.

Thanks for reading the Political Fix. If you enjoy this newsletter, please do share it. We’ll be back on Friday with a new Q&A. Send suggestions and feedback to rohan@scroll.