With a few days left before the US presidential election, the world is waiting to see whether American voters will elect their first female president in Hillary Clinton or opt for the controversial billionaire Donald Trump. But one thing is sure: The election of either candidate will have a profound impact on US foreign policy.
India, which has transformed its ties with the United States over the past two decades, has its own reasons—especially economic ones—to monitor the election closely.
What India wants
Only two years ago, outgoing US president Barack Obama and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi set the goal of increasing bilateral trade to $500 billion by 2020. The Indian government expects the new US administration to launch initiatives to achieve this goal. The government in New Delhi also hopes that its counterpart in Washington will remain committed to helping India realize its “Smart City” program for the cities of Ajmer, Vishakhapatnam, and Allahabad.
The Modi government has addressed America’s concerns regarding India’s Civil Liability Nuclear Damage Act 2010 by establishing the Indian Nuclear Insurance Pool, covering financial liability to nuclear operators for accidents, which has removed a stumbling block to deepening civil-nuclear cooperation. The onus is now on the US to facilitate the operation of the agreement as soon as possible.
While the United States has become India’s largest defense supplier (defense trade between the two countries surpassed $14 billion in 2015), India also needs close cooperation from the United States to ensure the success of the Modi government’s “Make in India” initiative. In terms of security, India is concerned by China’s position on disputed territories (such as Arunachal Pradesh in the country’s northeast and Ladakh in the northwest) and by the growing cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad. China now provides 63% of Pakistan’s armament.
New Delhi feels the presence of the United States in South Asia will help maintain the balance of power in its favor. The Indian government also knows it cannot pursue military modernization without access to advanced US weaponry and technology. Isolating Pakistan for failing to adequately address terrorism also requires the Indian government to sustain security talks and military exercises with the US.
This has assumed additional significance in light of the fast-changing security environment in South Asia. The situation intensified following the September terrorist attack on an Indian army camp, near the town of Uri, in Jammu and Kashmir.
Trump: India’s new best friend?
With an eye on garnering votes from the Indian-American community, Donald Trump has made many comments about India and its people during the last leg of his election campaign. Trump has described Modi as a “great man,” at the same time stating that he is a “great fan of the Hindus.”
Trump wants to attract the attention of the Indian-American community with Hindu nationalist rhetoric. By strongly condemning the Uri terrorist attack, he has sent a message that under his administration, the US would talk tough with Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism. As a businessman, Trump also has significant economic interests in India, with a luxury business tower being built in premium location in Mumbai.
Indian citizens are the top recipients of temporary high-skilled worker H-1B visas, accounting for 70% of the 316,000 H-1B petitions (for fiscal year 2014).
Trump has already announced that his administration would initiate a tough immigration policy and hike the minimum wage paid to H1B visa holders if elected president. This could reduce the prospect of job opportunities for Indian professionals and others. According to the US migration census, 103,000 Indian-born students enrolled in US educational institutions in 2013-14. This makes India the second largest source of international students to the United States after China.
Another statement of concern is Trump’s call for Muslims to be banned from entering the US; India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world. And finally, Donald Trump’s soft approach toward Russia may propel him to revisit US policy toward China. If that happens, it would have serious security ramifications for India.
Clinton’s eastern act
Hillary Clinton enjoys personal bonhomie with India as a result of her 1995 visit to the country. It’s believed she played a crucial role in encouraging her husband Bill Clinton to revive the India-US relationship during his presidency, which had hit its lowest point following India’s 1998 nuclear tests.
Clinton co-chaired the Senate India Caucus and supported the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. During her tenure as US secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, she further consolidated the deepening engagement between the two countries. Her contribution is recognized by Indian strategic thinkers for facilitating cooperation between the two countries in the field of high technology and defense, and for establishing a strategic dialogue between the two countries in July 2009.
She played an important role in strengthening ties with New Delhi under president Obama’s pivot to Asia. And her 2011 speech in Chennai was viewed as a historic moment for bilateral ties between the two countries. She said:
The time has come for India to lead…Much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia which, in turn, will be influenced by the partnership between the US and India and its relationship with neighbors.
She also said that India should “not just look east, but engage east and act east” to emerge as and consolidate its status as an Asian power. Her strong stand against Pakistan for its dismal performance in eliminating terrorist havens continues to have an impact on the minds of Indian people.
Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta has said she will take relations between the two countries to a new level and that better economic ties with India will anchor the US in the region. But her rival Donald Trump has alleged that Clinton has received funds from Indian leaders for her support of the nuclear deal.
Consensus in New Delhi
Clinton enjoys a good reputation among the sections of the Indian-American community, especially the younger generation. Undoubtedly, she enjoys the advantage of knowing India far better than her Republican rival. But it is also true that Trump’s recent efforts to attract the Indian-American community have paid off.
The Indian government and strategists appear less concerned about who wins than they have been in the past. So far, neither India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party nor prime minister Modi has taken any stand on the US election. There’s a general consensus among experts and strategists in India that irrespective of which candidate wins the election, New Delhi and Washington must continue to work together on making their ties even closer.