The US election will probably be decided by the courts. What will be the implications for the world—and India?
In reality, the difference between the two candidates in the fray over India is rather marginal. Strategically, ties between India and the US won’t be affected significantly in any way
NEW YORK :
New York has known deserted avenues since early spring, when coronavirus began its relentless march across the US. But the silence on the streets and the absence of traffic on Fifth Avenue had a menacing undercurrent on the night America went to polls. Shops were boarded up and streets were blocked off in this bluest of blue cities.
Nobody doubted which way New York city had voted. “F*** Trump," a young man shouted from his car, the car behind him honking loudly as if in support. On my phone, I had just received images from other parts of the US where armed men were roaming around, as if to protect the electoral process, but also intimidating and provoking voters.
The blue and red divide of America, where its large cities vote for Democrats and suburbs and smaller towns go Republican, seemed to be holding firm. As television networks began projecting results in state after state, patterns of the past kept repeating; close to midnight, it seemed the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona, would end up deciding how Americans had voted and who they wanted to lead the country for the next four years.
A final decision about the next president of the US will take days, and once that happens, the lawyers will get into the picture. Expect a flurry of legal challenges that could further delay the verdict. This will go to the courts.
As votes remain to be counted, a prolonged uncertainty would be terrible. Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, believes that would be a dangerous outcome, “as it allows countries such as China or Russia who wish to create geopolitical trouble a unique opportunity to do so when America is caught off guard. In the long run, it could further deepen polarization and increase the chances of domestic unrest in America, which will make it a less attractive partner."
Fact is, the American political system is adversarial, with two major political parties presenting alternative visions. Its voters have also been divided, and those divisions have only accentuated in recent years. Bipartisan consensus and camaraderie across party lines has been declining in recent years.
Urban America is increasingly cosmopolitan and multicultural, at ease with different nationalities and ethnicities. This has led to a flight to the suburbs, and rural America is increasingly concerned about the changing composition of the country.
These divisions get accentuated further in all spheres, including business and economics. Outward-oriented tech companies, the banking and finance sector, and other so-called sunrise industries have benefited from globalization and seen their stock values rise. Some of the biggest companies on Wall Street are now tech companies.
On the other hand, manufacturing companies have not only seen job losses, some have even closed down. It is that disaffected class that Trump relies on, to whom he has turned, stoking their fears and convincing them that the enemy is elsewhere.
A more charismatic Democratic candidate would probably have stopped Trump in his tracks, given the spread of the pandemic, the racial strife, and the loss of jobs. But Democrats opted for a safe pair of hands who would be acceptable to the broad centre, and not the fringe.
Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are septuagenarians, and both ran spirited campaigns, barnstorming the country, in particular crucial swing states like Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Both spent record amounts of money too. The campaign has left Americans divided, and early returns indicate that those divisions remain binary and won’t be bridged any time soon.
Turning point for America
A Trump victory will likely be a turning point for America, says Kaushik Basu, professor of economics and Carl Marks professor of international studies at Cornell University. It will mean “slowing down its economy and ceding space to other nations. Hyper-nationalism has brought down many economies in the past, and the US is unlikely to be an exception. For the world, a Trump victory will be bad news mainly for political reasons. It will embolden autocratic leaders and spread intolerance," he said.
In addition, a Trump victory is likely to hurt India’s economy because, while Trump may not build a concrete wall against India (that being reserved for Mexico), he will build walls to block outsourcing, trade and the inflow of professionals from India," Basu added.
Over the past four years, Trump focused on a few key issues, says Krishna Palepu, the Ross Graham Walker professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Trade was his priority (America first); he restricted immigration; he brought some troops home; he negotiated hard with China; he preferred bilateral ties over multilateralism (even to the extent of undermining United Nation bodies); and isolated Iran in the Middle East, bringing about a thaw between Israel and some Gulf states.
“I suspect he will become even more aggressive on all these fronts if he gets elected," Palepu said.
On the other hand, a Biden win will show some continuities. Biden has long enjoyed support from trade unions, and he will also focus on bringing more jobs to the US (which does not augur well for India and other countries seeking American investments).
Biden will be more welcoming on immigration, Palepu says, and will focus more on human rights overseas. As his running mate Kamala Harris showed during her vice-presidential debate with the incumbent Mike Pence, the US will rejoin the international community by engaging with allies and talking with adversaries.
Other analysts too are concerned about Trump’s bellicosity both at home and abroad. Milan Vaishnav said: “Trump poses a threat to America’s very democratic foundations. America’s future looks very uncertain. It will be consumed by domestic turmoil and turn further inward." Biden, on the other hand, would restore professionalism and adult supervision to the White House, he added.
New York-based novelist and writer Aatish Taseer has a bleak view of a Trump presidency. His victory would be a huge affirmation of the growing solidarity that exists between the demagogues and the people they represent. In place after place, the prevailing sense would be that the American people had triumphed over a cynical elite who had tried (and failed) to steer them away from Trump.
“In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be seen as prescient for having allied himself with “Doland" and that would strengthen his government’s hand against political enemies, dissidents, intellectuals and minorities. Indian democracy would come under even greater pressure," Taseer argues.
In contrast, a Biden win, Taseer says, would bring a change in the air.
“America would be seen as having reckoned and contained an ugly global populism. It would also signify the return of the West as a moral force in the world. In India, it would take the wind out of the sails of the Modi government. Everyone would remember ‘Howdy Modi’ and the ill-advised chant of ‘Ab ki bar Trump sarkar’."
For both the US and India, the common enemy is China, of course.
Aparna Pande, director at the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington believes the US’s strong policy on China will continue under Trump’s second term, she believes one of the strongest impacts may be on the US relationship with Europe.
Under Biden too, the US will pursue a strong policy on China but it will strengthen US alliances. “This reflects the view of the US strategic community that China is now a peer competitor and needs to be dealt with in that manner. Biden has also spoken about rebuilding the American economy and bringing back manufacturing, both of which will continue the current policy of decoupling from China but will most likely also include working with allies and partners so that the policy is effective without hurting any ally."
Impact on India
Many in India are concerned about the impact of the election. In reality, the difference between the two candidates over India is marginal. While it is true that Modi hosted Trump lavishly in India in February, and hosted an event with Trump in Texas on his visit to the US last year, strategically, ties between India and the US won’t be affected significantly.
Vaishnav thinks that in terms of security cooperation, very little will change for India if Biden wins, and there might even be a headway on some thorny economic issues that have plagued bilateral ties.
“While India may reap some short-term dividends (in the event of a Trump win, thanks to his stance on China, for instance), the president’s volatility means that India’s equities will not be well protected. The biggest upside for India (in case Biden wins) will be an America that once more believes in alliances, multilateralism, and consultation," he says.
Both administrations will see India as an important ally in containing China. Palepu believes there will be greater security cooperation between India and the US, although a Trump administration, with its hard stance on immigration, will make it more difficult for Indian companies to transfer their employees to the US easily. But even if Biden is good for India from the immigration perspective, he is unlikely to give India an easy ride over human rights. Harris, for example, had expressed criticism over India’s Kashmir policy.
India may feel reassured with a Trump victory, because it would not have to worry about realignment that a new administration brings, and convergence on security matters will continue.
But, Pandey says, “the areas of friction, primarily in the economic arena (tariff and protectionism, data privacy rules) and in the immigration realm (H1B visas, Green Cards)" will remain. “While the Trump administration has to date been soft on India’s domestic issues, that may not continue in the second term especially when it comes to issues related to religious freedom (such as the treatment of Christian missionaries and NGOs)."
Biden knows India–he had been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years, and as vice-president under Barack Obama, he was part of the leadership that forged closer ties with India.
Pandey says Biden will “listen to his advisors on India and South Asia, which would mean that the strategic component of the relationship will be the strongest, and while there will still be challenges on the economic front, there will be less of a transactional relationship. The areas of friction, from economy to immigration, will not go away but it may be easier to discuss them. There will be temporary relief on the immigration front as Biden said he would not continue the current Executive orders that hurt the employment-based visas and green cards."
But as she points out, there will be more discussion of India living up to its democratic ideals (religious freedom, democracy, Kashmir) even if these issues are not allowed to derail the relationship.
Regardless of the outcome, the Trump years have laid bare some schisms in society that are pretty potent, says Tarun Khanna, director of the South Asia Institute at Harvard.
“Those schisms will have to be addressed by whomever is in power, and it remains to be seen how the judiciary functions since the Supreme Court seems ideologically out of sync now with the mainstream of the US population," he added.
The divisions between rural and urban, Democrat and Republican (or blue and red) will perhaps only deepen, and healing the rift will not be in sight.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.
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