• Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020
  • Last Update : 10:46 pm

OP-ED: What will President Joe Biden mean for South Asia?

  • Published at 09:22 pm October 29th, 2020
A banner of Kamala Harris stands at the entrance of the village of Thulasendrapuram, in Tamil Nadu, India -- Harris’s ancestral village
A banner of Kamala Harris stands at the entrance of the village of Thulasendrapuram, in Tamil Nadu, India -- Harris’s ancestral village REUTERS

The key issues for South Asians in the US seem to be health care, racial discrimination, and the economy

Polls have been wrong before, but it’s looking increasingly certain that Donald Trump and his Republicans will decisively lose next week’s election. Soon, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take over as president and vice-president, and the US leadership will swing back into the Democratic ambit. 

There’s plenty at stake for South Asian countries, but less than might seem obvious from the vastly different personal styles of the brash, bloviating incumbent and his understated, empathetic (and visibly elderly) challenger. 

As the wily imperialist warmonger Lord Palmerston put it: “It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

When it comes to the United States and South Asia, there are two sets of permanent interests at play in the superpower’s calculus: Geopolitical power, and internal electoral politics. The former overwhelmingly dominated until the 21st century, but then South Asian American voters emerged an increasingly potent force, possessing the capacity to swing some states, as well as contribute funds far out of proportion to their numbers.

Here, it’s vital to note that Indian Americans (and there is good reason to believe these trends are equally pronounced amongst other South Asian diaspora groups) always overwhelmingly support the Democrats, and close to 80% are expected to vote for Biden/Harris this year as well. 

What is more, this loyal bloc doesn’t really care about the American government’s positions towards their ancestral homeland. According to a fascinating survey released earlier this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the University of Pennsylvania, only 3% of Indian American voters listed foreign policy as their number 1 issue. 

Everyone else cited the economy, health care, and racial discrimination.

This is largely to be expected from what is in many ways the richest, best-educated, and most highly integrated immigrant demographic in US history. These are not disaffected people, and think America is already pretty great. Naturally, they’re alarmed by Trump’s rage, racism, and extremist supporters. The fact that Joe Biden picked a running mate with Tamilian roots is a bonus, albeit one that is likely to make a policy difference.

“In the event of a Biden victory, it’s clear India won’t be overlooked, let alone forgotten, in an administration of which Kamala Harris is a senior member,” says Shashi Tharoor, the veteran international diplomat (he ran for the post of UN secretary-general in 2006), prolific author, and popular MP who served as India’s minister of state for external affairs under Manmohan Singh. 

He told me Harris “is bound to be a strong voice for democracy and human rights generally, but that could put her at odds with some of the Modi government’s actions, such as on Kashmir, the CAA, and the situation of India’s Muslim minority. When you care about a country, you won’t be indifferent to it, and are more likely to take a stand on issues agitating the community.”

Tharoor says: “Mr Trump has not always been ideal for India -- his stands on trade and tariffs, and on India’s environmental policies, could hardly have been welcome in New Delhi -- but he has been uncritical of Mr Modi’s domestic politics, and his divisive Hindutva agenda.”

He pointed out: “There are always continuities in any country’s foreign policy, all the more so that of a superpower like the US, with well-defined interests and well-established engagements around the world.” That said, where Trump departed from his predecessors was not only in his rhetoric, which was often ill-phrased and intemperate; but also in his resort to 3am tweets on major policy issues, such as to the ‘‘Little Rocket Man’’ in North Korea; his unpredictability and tendency to change attitudes at a moment’s notice, as with China and President Xi, which has gone from bromance to Cold War; his extreme transactionalism, resulting even in a mini-trade war with a country he was trying to woo, India; and his inability to stay the course (eg bombing Syria one day in April 2017, and failing to follow through for the next three and a half years).

The bottom line? Tharoor says: “I believe the US’s South Asia policy has evolved definitively the way it has and there is bipartisan consensus in both capitals that underpin it, not to mention the influence of the significant Indian diaspora in the US, which will ensure India’s continued salience in Washington. While I do expect course correction on global issues like multilateralism (I expect Biden to reverse Trump’s decision to pull the US out of WHO, for instance) I do not expect much change in US-India relations.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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