The naming of Kamala Devi Harris, an Indian-African-American senator from California, as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, elicited more excitement in the United States and of course in Chennai and elsewhere in India than in ruling BJP circles.
When the external affairs ministry’s spokesman was asked why no congratulatory message had gone from Prime Minister Narendra Modi or anyone in Cabinet, he incredulously replied that India doesn’t interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
Why then, one could ask, did Mr Modi serenade President Donald Trump at the “Howdy Modi” Indian diaspora rally in Houston in September last year? Or goad the crowd by shouting “Abki baar…”, awaiting the roaring reply of “Trump sarkar”.
South Block’s nervousness is understandable as external affairs minister S. Jaishankar quarreled with a US congressional committee demanding Indian-origin Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal be excluded for her critique of the Indian government’s majoritarian politics.
Senator Kamala Harris and other influential Democrats rallied to berate Jaishankar. Harris is, in any case, known human rights crusader.
What then would be Biden-Harris government’s foreign policy priorities and their impact on India-US relations, tailored by Modi government to keep Trump’s ego massaged.
A diaspora assemblage at Houston, followed by lakhs gathered at Ahmedabad, provided Trump the stage to indulge in populist self-gratification, while irritants like trade were sidestepped.
Trump in turn ignored anti-CAA agitation, including rioting in parts of New Delhi as he settled at Rashtrapati Bhavan for the farewell banquet.
James Traub, in Foreign Policy magazine, quotes Colin Kahl, then vice-president Joe Biden’s national security adviser in 2014-16, that three issues will dominate a Biden administration’s agenda.
One, the inter-connectedness of the world and global existential challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic; two, democracy at threat across the world; and three, with ongoing power transition between nations the return of great power competition. Biden had earlier this year written in Foreign Affairs that the contest between democracy-liberalism and autocracy-fascism did not end in the last century. It lurks in the future again.
Biden plans a “Summit for Democracy” in the first year of his presidency, But his vision for resurrection of liberalism and democracy, centres on Europe.
By instinct an “Atlanticist” his priority would be revival of European alliance that
Trump has scorned. James Traub tellingly remarks: “On many issues, emerging-world democracies like India and Brazil feel much more like the problem than a part of the solution”. The smothered voices of liberalism in India would agree.
Many recent books have analysed worldwide democratic recession, seen in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, etc. Even autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping have eliminated term limits on their rule. How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky analyses the malaise.
The authors conclude that “Trump’s rise may itself pose a challenge to global democracy”. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Barack Obama presidency, US governments maintained a broadly pro-democratic foreign policy, except where strategic interests were dominant.
But globalisation de-industrialising the US and the rush of immigrants created by Syrian crisis, with greater effect in Europe, and through America’s porous southern border created the conditions for the rise of a populist leader playing on the sense of marginalisation of the working and middle-class white majority.
The authors’ conclusion, written before the pandemic hit the US, is that only President Trump’s gross failure would create public disgust and desire for political reform, as happened after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Weighing against this is dominant social media spreading unbridled bigotry, slanted news and prejudice.
America’s founding fathers created foolproof institutions and separation of powers to counter power grab by either the executive, legislature or judiciary.
They also mandated unwritten shared beliefs and practices that enabled those institutions to work. Two cardinal principles prescribed were mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.
Similar traditions were nurtured in Jawaharlal Nehru’s India. Breached in the US, and progressively so in India, these ideals surrendered to highly polarised politics once Newt Gingrich in 1989 gained control over Republicans in two houses of US Congress. Institutional legitimacy of the US Congress got degraded, paving the way for the anti-establishment presidency of Trump.
Treating mainstream media as illegitimate interlopers, attacking political opponents to not just defeat but destroy them and stealing mandates by gerrymandering or vote suppression, as Trump is attempting by attacking postal ballots, or as in India by forming defection-based governments even after losing mandates.
All these are signs of slow strangulation of liberal democracy.
New Delhi may today downplay Prime Minister Modi’s unwise public political dalliance with Trump, but the latter’s campaign is merrily using videos of the Houston and Ahmedabad joint rallies in their publicity blitz to woo Indian-American votes, who mostly favour Democrats.
According to Pew Research, Hindus constitute about 51 per cent of the two million-odd diaspora voters, others being Sikhs, Christians and Muslims. Will the diaspora be drawn to Democrats’ promises on immigration laws, health insurance and a fairer economic order or accept Modi’s endorsement of a divisive, pro-rich Trump, hoping he is better for India?
US voters are living through mishandled pandemic, economic chaos and racial tension caused street violence.
Trump is getting traction fanning the white majority’s law and order fears, while promising a vaccine and economic turnaround is around the corner.
US leadership is critical for addressing vital issues like climate change, anti-globalisation paranoia affecting global trade and investment, and an aggressive China.
On November 3 will be known whether a reforming and pro-democracy Biden wins, compelling majoritarian populists globally to reflect and perhaps change, or the US sees the return of disruptive, autocratic and “America First” Trump.