Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Poll won’t Affect Ties with India

Kanwal Sibal
Member Advisory Board, VIF

The upcoming presidential election in the United States lacks the excitement of the election four years ago when Barack Obama made history by being the first black person ever to occupy the White House. He cannot make that kind of history again. The issues he is grappling with in this election are humdrum ones of a sluggish economy and job-creation. They concern the lives of ordinary Americans but have no other extraordinary significance.

The challenger, Mitt Romney, is not an electrifying candidate either. On the contrary, his campaign has been judged as amongst the worst ever by a Republican nominee. To many he is not a credible candidate in terms of clarity and consistency of views and convictions. The domestic focus of the election also reduces the level of outside interest in countries that are not US allies.


Whether Obama or Romney wins is not too material for India-US relations because of the level of maturity and stability they have reached in the last few years. Political and economic attitudes on both sides have been transformed, with a visible desire to work together in mutual interest. The claim that bi-partisan political support now exists in the US for closer ties with India is well-based. The electoral platform of both parties is positive about India, with the Democrats affirming that the US “will continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India’ and the Republicans calling India a “ geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner”.

India has grown out of the simplistic traditional thinking that Democrats are more friendly towards India than Republicans. If Kennedy was more understanding of India, Carter was much less so and Clinton’s positions on nuclear matters, Kashmir, human rights issues etc were highly negative for us, a reality his successful visit to India towards the end of his second tenure should not obscure. On the other hand, if Nixon’s attitude towards India was unspeakable, Bush was responsible for transforming US ties with India. In reality, Democrats and Republicans will do what they think is best for the US in given circumstances.

We know, of course, where we stand with Barack Obama, whereas Mitt Romney is an unknown quantity. But familiarity with one and the absence of it with the other is not important beyond a point as US policies emerge and evolve from an intensive internal inter-departmental process that has maximization of national interest as objective. Obama’s views were not initially too congenial for us on several issues, but they evolved more favourably for us in the course of his presidency. After election he publicly mulled over nominating Clinton as US Special Envoy on Kashmir. He believed that to obtain Pakistan’s support for the US in Afghanistan it was necessary to press India to make concessions to Pakistan on Kashmir. He was opposed to any prominent role for India in Afghanistan. He alienated the most pro-US section of the Indian entrepreneurial class by his position on outsourcing. But recognizing altered realities, his discourse on Pakistan, India’s role in Afghanistan, on Kashmir etc has changed in our favour, though on outsourcing he continues to play politics.

The Obama Administration is helping India strengthen its capacities to manage internal security, which the new Administration will also do. It has designated LeT and the Haqqani group as terrorist organizations, and declared a bounty on Hafiz Saeed. But then the US has to manage the political and military transition in Afghanistan for which they need a minimum of Pakistani cooperation, including access to supply routes. These realities will weigh with whoever wins the election.


The US as a whole, though, is now deeply disenchanted with the vagaries of Pakistan’s policies towards terrorism and Afghanistan. Romney undoubtedly shares the general American disillusionment with Pakistan’s conduct. If Obama loses and Romney wins one can hardly see the US overcoming its distrust of Pakistan.

On Kashmir, Romney can be expected to pursue Obama’s present neutral line of leaving it to India and Pakistan to settle the issue bilaterally. The US is not yet ready to give India the kind of comfort in Kashmir that should logically flow from its own experience of Pakistan’s toxic policies in its immediate neighbourhood driven by military ambition and religious radicalism. However, on the whole, we will have less issues with US policy towards Pakistan whatever the outcome of the next election.

Romney is particularly tough on China. If the Democrats under Obama consider India a lynchpin in the US pivot towards Asia, the Republicans under Romney will hardly think otherwise.


Whether one candidate or the other wins, India and the US will have to contend with some irritants and unmet expectations. For India, easier export controls and high/dual use technology transfers, additional costs imposed on the Indian IT industry by hikes in H1B and L1 visa fees, outsourcing issues etc will remain on the agenda. US concerns about our nuclear liability law and stalling of economic reforms will continue even though the government has allowed FDI in multi-brand retail and raised its ceiling in the insurance and pension sectors. Despite our bilateral trade reaching $100 billion, with a significant spurt in US exports, the US will continue to press for more market openings. Growing US defence sales to India is a strategic advance denoting growing mutual trust, but the US will expect more in this area. With job creation concerns in the US, outsourcing issues will persist. India will continue to preserve its strategic autonomy in foreign policy, with the US complaisant but suspicious about its “nonaligned” logic.

Obama or Romney- for us in meaningful political terms the choice would not be of much import.

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