The Indian tangent in US polls

India has rarely loomed large in the US presidential campaigns. Indeed it was only towards the end of the Cold War that it even merited any mention during the campaign speeches and debates. When it did, it was usually derivative of other US global foreign and security policy concerns. For example, on occasion, some presidential contenders may have alluded to the risks and dangers of war as India and Pakistan pursued nuclear weapons. The lack of interest in India was unsurprising. The country’s economy was not integrated into the global economic order, it posed no military threat to the United States and the cultural ties with America were mostly tenuous.
It was only after the country had fitfully embraced policies of economic liberalisation, forced its way into the nuclear club and forged other links with the US that presidential candidates and their advisers started to pay some heed to it. Attention, of course, as Indian policymakers soon came to discover, could be a two-way street. Being wholly ignored could underscore the country’s insignificance to US foreign policy interests. On the other hand, obtaining some glare during a keenly contested presidential campaign could also place the country under an uncomfortable gaze.
The initial focus on India during a presidential campaign brought some cheer to Indian policymakers. Much to their delight, Condoleezza Rice’s famous essay in the pre-eminent foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs in 2000 alluded to India’s significance as an emerging regional power. In this essay she sought to highlight what she deemed would be the foreign policy priorities of a possible Bush administration. Obviously, when in office, first as the President’s national security adviser and then as his secretary of state, she followed through on the sentiments that she had expressed in her essay.
Ironically, the two Bush administrations, given the sheer amount of attention that it devoted to India, led many Indian analysts and commentators to argue that Republicans were better disposed towards India than Democrats. Of course, this position was a product of the immediate policy salience of the two Bush administrations and not based upon a careful assessment of the historical record of various administrations in their dealings with India.
For less felicitous reasons India came to the fore again in the 2008 presidential elections. The US economy was in the doldrums and about to plunge headlong into a major recession. It was also a time when a host of US manufacturing, and especially service jobs, had been shifted to India and elsewhere to take advantage of low wage opportunities. Not surprisingly, Obama, then a presidential contender, sought to make it a campaign issue. Once in office, however, it was not a subject that his administration returned to with any vigour. Nevertheless his campaign rhetoric had caused much concern to Indian policymakers as well as the titans of Indian commerce and industry.
In the current presidential debates, the issue of outsourcing and offshoring of jobs has again arisen. However, there have been few explicit references to India. Instead, India’s behemoth neighbour, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has really attracted the ire of both presidential candidates. Indeed, to some degree they have engaged in what political scientists refer to as a process of outbidding; when one party or individual seeks to outdo the other in rhetorical and other gestures. Once again, despite the heated statements on the campaign trial, it is unlikely that either candidate will actually carry through some of their more dire pronouncements when dealing with China.
Even in debates about policy choices towards India’s immediate and close neighbours, Pakistan and Afghanistan, direct references to India have been virtually non-existent. This deafening silence about India can be construed in two possible ways. At one level, it can be seen as a disturbing development as India is hardly immune to the policy choices that are made about those two countries, especially as 2014 approaches. On the other hand, it could also be argued that this lack of any explicit attention to India may also reflect a lack of disagreement about policy options.
The time and attention devoted to India or not in this campaign is not necessarily the best portent of the likely policy stances of either administration. Instead what will matter are the differences that the two presidential candidates have on such crucial issues as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the scope and pace of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, global climate change and trade negotiations and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian question. India has distinctive views on each of these subjects. Accordingly, the choices of the American electorate on November 6 and thereby the outcome of the election could have significant consequences for the future course of Indo-US relations.

The writer is the director of the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana
University, Bloomington

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