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Opinion Columnists 11 Nov 2020 Vishnu Prakash | Ind ...
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst and a former Indian ambassador to South Korea and high commissioner to Canada.

Vishnu Prakash | India-US ties might be stronger under Biden

Published Nov 11, 2020, 11:30 am IST
Updated Nov 11, 2020, 11:30 am IST
The question that is uppermost in the minds of most Indians is about Biden’s disposition towards India and China
President-elect Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP)
 President-elect Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP)

It was difficult to believe one’s eyes when the so-called leader of the free world stood before the cameras to announce that his opponent was trying to “steal” the just-concluded American presidential elections, which he claimed he had already won, with barely half the votes tabulated. In the supercharged atmosphere, such an incendiary assertion was bound to spark protests and violence across the nation. Unfortunately, it did.

India may not be a perfect democracy, but it has a fairly enviable record of peaceful transition of power, notwithstanding the heated rhetoric. Even Mrs Indira Gandhi, having imposed an ill-advised Emergency in 1975, bowed out of office gracefully upon losing at the hustings in 1977. Every credit goes to India’s Election Commission for meticulously organising the gigantic parliamentary elections last year, involving a 850-million strong electorate.

 

Curiously, the United States doesn’t have a Federal Electoral Commission. Each of the 50 states and Washington D.C. is responsible for holding the elections and framing procedural/policy guidelines, even without judicial oversight. As such, there is a wide variation in practices. Some states allow early voting by all, some don’t. Some use EVMs, while others have only paper ballots. Some undertake simultaneous or early ballot counting, while the others do so only after the polls have closed.

Even more unique is the institution of an “Electoral College” which actually elects the President and vice-president. An eligible voter votes for the President and the Veep, but also for the elector. Both the popular and the Electoral College votes are tallied, but the latter takes precedence. At least five times in US history has a candidate won the popular vote while his rival has taken office by virtue of garnering a majority in the Electoral College.

 

The Electoral College is a historical legacy. America’s 1787 constitutional convention was not ready to bestow universal franchise and was bitterly divided over allowing semi-literate or underprivileged individuals to choose the President. That is when a compromise was struck. Political parties could nominate their representatives to contest for the Electoral College. Towards the end of the 18th century only property-owning white American men were enfranchised, who comprised just six per cent of the population. Women got the right to vote only in 1920. Surprisingly, the system has worked extremely well till now.

 

However, not even America’s founding fathers could have foreseen and insulated the electoral architecture against an iconoclast and narcissist like Donald Trump, for whom the ends justify the means. As of November 9, he continues to claim victory and vows to wage a futile legal battle to get the results annulled or the ballots recounted, essentially on frivolous grounds.

All the same, much to the relief of the world and a majority of the American people, former vice-president Joe Biden is all but certain to be the next occupant of the White House. His running mate, Kamala Devi Harris, half black and half Indian, will become the first woman and the first non-white person to become the vice-president of the United States.

 

The question that is uppermost in the minds of most Indians is about Mr Biden’s disposition towards India and China. Some analysts contend that he would be soft towards China and Pakistan. It would be recalled that in October 2008, Islamabad had conferred the “Hilal-i-Pakistan” (Crescent of Pakistan), its highest civilian honour, on him “in recognition of… consistent support for Pakistan”. That said, the geostrategic scenario has undergone a sea change in the past five years, and Pakistan has been totally exposed. Its utility for the US has diminished, and it is now firmly in the Chinese camp, which makes it a bigger suspect.

 

At the same time, China has grievously erred by overtly stepping up its efforts to displace America as regional hegemon. It challenged the might of the US by flexing its military muscle with most maritime neighbours, some of whom, like Japan and Philippines, are under the US security umbrella. It also aims to wrest the crown as world leader in innovation, infotech and biotech. Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is expanding its economic and strategic footprint across the globe. As these directly threaten America’s primacy, no US President, not even an internationalist like Joe Biden, can afford to turn a Nelson’s eye.

 

On the other hand, Mr Biden has stayed invested in India-US relations for decades. He has visited India several times and officially once while he was vice-president in 2013. He has been an admirer of India’s democratic moorings and pluralism.  As a senator, he voted in favour of India-specific motions at least six times. He backed the civil nuclear agreement with India as well as India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Earlier this year he assured the Indian American community: “I’ll continue to believe and continue… standing with India and confronting the threats it faces in its own region along its borders.”

 

In any event, leaders are guided by national interests in cultivating ties with other countries. India and the US have over 60 dialogue mechanisms in addition to the “2+2” ministerial consultations encompassing a wide range of subjects, including the economy, trade, education, energy, science and technology, security and defence, outer space, counterterrorism and cyber security, in addition to regional and international issues. It is natural for the world’s largest and (soon to be) third largest economies to enhance their synergies.

 

There is a growing convergence in our regional and global outlook. We particularly view Chinese aggression, ambition and threats from a similar prism. It is said that “where you stand in the world has a good deal to do with where you sit”. And there are a handful of matters where our interests do diverge, such as India’s ties with Iran and Russia. This is primarily due to our geographical and security imperatives.  

It is reasonable to expect, therefore, a continued emphasis and attention on infusing greater momentum in bilateral ties. America’s interest in the “Indo-Pacific concept” or the “Quad” should remain undiminished. Given the trajectory that China is following, it is not inconceivable for India to opt for an enhanced partnership with the US. “If the US and India became closer friends and partners, then the world will be a safer place”, Mr Biden had observed 15 years ago. It’s time to make that happen together!

 

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