By Rahul Singh | 9 November 2020
Church and State
The world’s largest democracy, India, and the oldest constitutional democracy, the USA (Britain’s is older but has no written constitution), have had a rocky relationship ever since India got its independence in 1947. You would have thought that two democratic countries would get on famously. Somehow that did not happen, till much later. Let us examine why. US foreign relations for much of the Cold War were mainly dictated by its hard-nosed but ill-informed Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. His motto was, “if you are not with us, you are with them.” “Them” was, needless to say, the Soviet Union. There were no in-betweens or grey areas for him, no room for compromise.
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, though officially a Hindu by religion was actually an avowed atheist and socialist (though not a communist). He was an admirer of the Soviet Union and modelled India’s economy on that country. Most of India’s large industries were put under government control. Fortunately, he left agriculture in private hands. Regarding foreign affairs, Nehru decided India would follow a policy of what he called “Non Alignment”, which meant keeping a certain distance from both the USA and the Soviet Union. He was able to bring quite a few newly-independent countries into its fold, thereby forming a non-aligned block. Dulles saw red, in more ways than one, concerning this “Non Alignment”. Moscow, on the other hand, was much more benevolent towards the non-aligned group of countries and willing to give them economic aid, which the USA was reluctant to do.
The USA also, strangely, preferred to deal with dictatorships rather than with popularly elected governments, in Asia, Africa and South America. Witness the number of dictatorships in those continents then that the USA happily had good dealings with. When Chile became democratic by electing Salvador Allende as its President, an alarmed Washington manoeuvred to have him removed and the military brought back to power. In Pakistan, too, after a brief period of democracy, the army took over after a coup. The new regime was welcomed with open arms and included in a US-led military pact, the Southeast Asia Treaty Alliance (SEATO), which provided Pakistan military assistance and economic aid.
But the equation suddenly changed in 1962, when a border dispute between India and China in the Himalayas in 1962, flared up into a brief war. The Chinese troops, battle-hardened after the Korean war, humiliated the under-prepared Indian army. Nehru appealed to US President Jack Kennedy for help. It was effectively the end of India’s policy of non-alignment, though under his daughter, Indira Gandhi, India maintained close ties with Moscow, whereas she and President Richard Nixon had a frosty relationship. Then came the disastrous Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev. The break-up was aided by his “glasnost” policy and the coming of democracy in his nation.
While New Delhi and Moscow distanced themselves, Washington drew closer to India. This climaxed under Rajiv Gandhi, who replaced his mother, Indira Gandhi, after she was assassinated in 1984. He had a successful visit to the USA, where President Ronald Reagan warmed towards him. Rajiv Gandhi also began to liberalise the Indian economy and open it up to the market. Under President George W Bush, too, a path-breaking nuclear deal was signed between the two nations cementing the close ties.
Which brings us to the present day and the just-concluded US Presidential election. Along with many Indians and Pakistanis, and, surely, millions others around the world, this writer was glued to the TV for three days, sometimes late into the night, to watch one of the most closely-contested and polarizing Presidential elections in recent times. The huge interest was not just because the USA is a super power (though China is fast catching up) whose actions affect virtually every country, but also due to the colourful personality of Trump. You may not like the man, but you can’t ignore him, nor what he stands for.
The only other US election which came close to generating so much interest was that in which Barack Obama won over John McCain in 2008 (Biden was Obama’s running mate). That was mainly because Obama was the first man of colour to stand – and win – a US Presidential contest. McCain was graceful and generous in defeat, while Trump has been mean and petty-minded, refusing to accept defeat, though he seems to have accepted it at the time of writing, but continuing to insist that he was cheated of victory and the results rigged. Yet, the fact is that over 72 million Americans voted for him, more than the last time round, testifying to his continuing appeal to a great many of his fellow countrymen and women. Though he was caught lying repeatedly during his four years in office and also refused to divulge details of his income tax returns, his directness and bombast made him a populist figure. Biden, on the other hand, came across as somewhat colourless, though more trustworthy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is certainly going to miss Trump. Both men hit it off well and seemed to bond with each other. There was considerable warmth each time they met, Modi giving him the Indian-style hug characteristic of him. In Houston, Texas, Trump took part in a humungous reception for Modi by his Indian-origin supporters in the largest football stadium of the city. The spectacle was repeated at the beginning of this year in Ahmedabad, Capital of Modi’s home State of Gujarat, when Trump and his wife visited India. Clearly, Modi was expecting Trump to win another term as President, and Trump was hoping he would harvest most of the 1.9 million influential Indian-origin voters in the USA.
It is ironic that ultimately most of those voters cast their ballots for Biden, instead. That could partly be because Trump publicly described India as “filthy”, just before the election. This was a reference to the heavily polluted air in many Indian cities, including Delhi, which has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted Capital in the world. But it was seen as referring to the country as a whole. While it is true that India has extremely poor public sanitation and the standards of hygiene leave much to be desired, Indians don’t like this to be pointed out by outsiders, particularly by the President of the USA.
However, the main reason the Biden Presidential bid resonated so strongly with Indian-origin Americans, and Indians elsewhere, was the choice of his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. Her mother was a Tamil-Brahmin who went to the USA for further studies when she was just 19, and went on to make the USA her home, after marrying a black Jamaican. Kamala went to Howard University, considered as mainly an African-American university, and identified herself as a black. Hence, her joint appeal, for ethnic Indians as well as Afro-Americans, who together constitute around 13 percent of the US population. Biden is 78 years old, the oldest President-elect in American history. He will therefore be 82, when his term ends. He has already indicated he will not stand for another term. Which means that Kamala Harris would be in line for the Presidency. If she wins, it would make her not only the first woman US President, but the first one of colour, a possible historic moment for the USA. Indians will stand even prouder then.
However, the main question most Indians and Pakistanis are asking is, how good will a Biden Presidency be for their respective countries? After Independence in 1947, India and Pakistan moved in different directions. Pakistan became a military ally of the USA, while India became “non-aligned”, though with closer ties to Moscow than Washington. After the Russians were forcibly expelled from Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union broke up, new power equations emerged. India became friendlier with the USA while Pakistan developed close economic and political ties with China. However, the onset of terrorism changed all this. Thousands of those who had successfully fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan found themselves at a loose end. Islamabad sent many of them to Kashmir to help the separatist movement there. Wily nily, Pakistan itself became a terrorist centre with some of the terrorists turning on Pakistan itself.
Washington recognized this new reality and it is to the credit of Trump that he managed to maintain good relations with both both Islamabad and New Delhi. Imran Khan was able to persuade Trump that he was doing his best to clamp down on Pakistani terrorists centres. Besides, both men, with their macho appeal, were somewhat similar in nature: blunt and populist, which went down well with their people. Trump also had a notable foreign policy success. He managed to engineer peace pacts between Israel and some Islamic countries, including the UAE. Turning to Biden, as he has in the past been quite outspoken on human rights, it is highly doubtful if he will be so benevolent towards Islamabad. With New Delhi, too, both Biden and Harris have earlier been critical over the Kashmir issue, especially the change the Modi government recently made over the status of that State.
But China is the elephant in the room. A face-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Himalayas has brought Sino-Indian ties to their lowest ebb since a brief war between the two countries in 1962. As a result, and taking a cue from Washington which took similar action, New Delhi has halted the import of certain Chinese goods and of services related to IT (Information Technology). Will Biden follow in the footsteps of Trump as far as China is concerned? Or will be move in a more nuanced fashion? He has already indicated that he will reverse what Trump did and will bring Washington back into the folds of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and also take the pandemic much more seriously than did his predecessor. Biden’s main challenge, however, is within his own country. That is to remove the vestiges of the odious “Trumpism” and restore the USA to the decent, freedom-loving, inclusive and welcoming nation it has been for most of its existence.
Rahul Singh is a writer and journalist. A former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times (Dubai), he has also contributed to the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes.
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