The fact that a billionaire real estate mogul and eccentric TV personality (Donald Trump) is seen sharing a dais with Republican senators and governors debating hot-button foreign policy issues means that the election season has commenced.
Even if tuning into primary debates and caucus state campaigning may not exactly satiate your appetite in terms of geo-political news, this marks the beginning of a very important process. By this time next year, the world’s oldest democracy will have elected its 45th president.
Most foreign ministries maintain their distances from heated election cycles and tend to present a sense of apathy with regard to the election outcome. However, in reality, the outcome that determines the eventual occupant of the Oval Office is one that interests all governments, and India is no exception.
Hillary Clinton, who is widely viewed as the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, is certainly no stranger in India, having made visits as first lady and as secretary of State. She represents the 2.0 version of the amiable, jovial and oomph perception that India presently holds of President Obama. And it is no reason to believe otherwise that India and its vast diaspora in the United States will not be cheerleaders for “Team Hillary” come November 2016.
It’s not just the fact that Indian-Americans have traditionally associated themselves as Democrats (a Pew Research poll said that 65 percent of Indian-Americans are Democrats, while a post-election survey in 2012 carried out by Asian American Justice Center declared that 88 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Obama) it may also lie in the fact that India may find it hard to relate to the current Republican Party that many term as having gone too far to the right on social issues.
The current GOP front-runners are considered hawkish on their foreign policy stances. President Bush’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast to a more affable Obama, one who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, may have many in New Delhi convinced that they may be better served by a Democratic administration. But that may be a hasty assumption, for as hard as it may seem to believe, foreign policy experts in the past have documented that India’s best interests have indeed been served by Republican administrations. Incredulity aside, there is however some method in the madness.
Traditionally conservative governments have looked at India favorably due to their shared democratic values. And as a burgeoning economic powerhouse, India is seen as the potent democratic counterweight to what many in Washington see as an increasingly belligerent China.
Republicans claiming to be the patrons of free-market enterprises have viewed India as a potential goldmine for American companies, and a newly liberalized Indian economy in the ’90s was looked at as an untapped potential market for American goods and services. Sure enough the process of outsourcing became a trend and now adds to New Delhi’s coffers.
The Democratic outlook has generally been harsher on jobs being sent overseas in contrast to Republican’s pro-business methodology, which has been more favorable to companies who intend to slash their expenditure by outsourcing the low-level jobs.
A closer inspection of several administrations paints a clearer picture. Among the Democratic presidents, Woodrow Wilson, who was in office during World War I, did very little to forward India’s cause for independence, whereas it was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, who accentuated the Indian independence movement.
President Harry Truman, a Democrat, received Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949 and refused to help with economic or food aid to India. Truman also did little to aid India in resolving the Kashmir dispute.
Contrast this with Nehru’s next visit to the United States in 1956, which was a marked success with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. The Eisenhower administration doubled economic aid to India and approved the food program. Eisenhower would then become the first U.S. president to visit independent India in 1959.
Nehru’s 1961 talks with Democratic President John F. Kennedy were, at best, described as lukewarm, and the charismatic young president went as far as to rate it the “worst state visit ever.” JFK also took a passive stance on China’s invasion of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh in 1962.
JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, also a Democrat, didn’t back India during the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, and when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi voiced her disapproval of the bombings in Vietnam, LBJ rolled back on the promised supply of wheat to India.
Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, met Prime Minister Moraji Desai but wasn’t keen to ship enriched uranium for the Tarapur nuclear plant. However it was Republican Ronald Reagan who initiated closer technology ties with the young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
And while Bill Clinton may be revered in India today while George W. Bush may be reviled, it was the Clinton administration that took harsh measures against India for its nuclear program while the Bush administration signed the hallmark nuclear agreement of 2005. Clinton also distanced himself from the Kargil conflict while his administration questioned India’s human rights record in Kashmir.
There were, however, two anomalies to the rule. The legendary Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, lent support to the British during World War II on the condition that Britain would grant India independence. And some in New Delhi can’t possibly get over Republican President Richard Nixon, who abhorred Indira Gandhi and allied with Pakistan during the 1971 war.
The Obama administration’s relationship with India over the course of his two terms has been unique and can’t be pigeonholed as either “liberal” or “conservative.”
While Obama may not have made any grand gestures, his administration has certainly picked up from where Bush left off. He became the first sitting U.S. president to visit India twice during office when he accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebration in January.
And credit can be attributed to Modi for assuaging the kerfuffle in diplomatic ties after the Devyani Khobragde saga and not letting his past persona non-grata status in the United States hamper any future diplomatic relations.
Would a possible Hillary Clinton presidency continue with another Clinton doctrine when it comes to India? Would that be the same doctrine of the ’90s? Seems unlikely as the former secretary of State has made it clear that she isn’t running for either President Clinton’s third term or President Obama’s third term, but instead running for her first term.
It is highly unlikely that either a Democratic or Republican administration will be guided by any remnants of strong pro- or anti-India feelings that their predecessors may have possessed. In reality, it will be more diplomacy of realpolitik that focuses on contemporary issues.
However, if history has taught us anything, it’s that the bridge between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 7 Race Course Road can widen or shrink with every new administration in a few years’ time.