Kamala Harris speaks during a campaign stop on October 27, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Given her heritage, the incoming vice-president will be an important figure in US-India relations. Photo: Joe Buglewicz / Getty Images / AFP

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election is taken by many as the defeat of bigotry, hatred, racist nationalism, right-wing populism, and anti-globalization in that country under Donald Trump.

But how does Biden’s win affect India?

International-relations and diplomacy pundits have been proffering contradictory reckonings of the likely outcomes of Trump’s ouster from the White House in the area of India-US relations.

One group believes that Biden’s win could be useful for India-US relations.

Another group believes Biden’s victory could be bad for India because there is no friendship between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President-elect Biden.

They think the bonhomie between Trump and Modi contributed immensely to deeper India-US ties. They think the Modi-Biden chemistry may not be the same.

Modi tweeted congratulations to Biden on his election victory and recalled his contributions in deepening Indo-US relations in the past.

Modi also says he hopes to work with Biden to improve India-US ties further.

Modi also congratulated Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and recalled her half-Indian lineage as emotional ties with India. He expressed confidence that India-US relations will be further strengthened under her leadership in the future.

Biden expressed his vision for India-US relations in 2006, three years before he became vice-president. He said at that time, “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States.”

Then-senator Barack Obama was a little doubtful about backing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Biden took the lead and toiled with bipartisan support, of both Republicans and Democrats, to endorse the agreement by the US Congress in 2008.

However, as a matter of fact, Modi will find it harder to get US support and cooperation after the US leadership change.

Biden played a key role in boosting US-India relations in the past and now he will be the US president. But there are many reasons Modi will face more challenges during Biden’s tenure.

The first reason is policy differences between the two.

Biden will normalize trade and tech relations with China. True, he said during the election campaign that China was a competitor and Russia a foe of the US. He is expected to take a tough stance on human-rights issues in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Biden will also prioritize the Taiwan issue.

However, Biden wants to look for a settlement of the trade and technology war with China. In a Foreign Affairs essay, Biden wrote that the trade war has done more harm than good to the American people.

A settlement of the trade and technology war between China and the US would mark the end of Modi’s leverage against China. On the other hand, Beijing will gain leverage because it can ask the US to stay away from India-China relations while negotiating trade and tech disputes.

Analysts believe that with the departure of Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US tone will be softer and more diplomatic, because of tone matters. Additionally, Biden is not likely to put stock in PR stunts like “Howdy Modi” and “Namaste Trump” during his tenure.

Second, Modi will face very tough challenges from two high-ranking American women of Indian descent. One is Harris, and the other a congresswoman from Washington state, Pramila Jayapal.

Harris, who built her reputation as a human-rights and social-justice campaigner before being elected vice-president, cannot support Modi promoting hatred, division, and repression of minorities and dissent.

Harris will lose her credibility if she overlooks India’s gross human-rights abuses based on her half-Indian ancestry. She has ambitions to be the US president, and she is mindful of the cost of such a stance.

As for Jayapal, she could become secretary of the Health and Human Services Department. If she is included in Biden’s cabinet, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishanka will face a moral crisis. Jaishankar refused to meet with her about a year ago because of her stand on the Kashmir issue.

“I have an interest in meeting people who are objective and open to discussion but not the people who already made up their minds,” Jaishankar told media to explain why he did not meet with Jayapal.

How will Jaishankar work with “the people who already made up their minds” like Jayapal in the future?

Jayapal was a leading member of the Biden-Sanders unity task force and influential in the drafting of Biden’s campaign policy. If she has anything to do with it, the Biden administration will take a tough stance on the Modi government’s crackdowns against minorities and dissenters. Even if she does not take charge of the Health Department in Biden’s cabinet, she will scrutinize his policies in the House of Representatives.

Third, Biden several times during his political career has favored friendship and partnership with a secular, multicultural, pluralist, diverse, open and liberal India.

Biden wanted America’s friendship with India to be based on democratic principles, norms, and values. It should be based on human rights, the rule of law, and peaceful co-existence.

When Biden extended his cooperation to India in a civil nuclear deal in 2006, India had a secular and liberal government led by prime minister Manmohan Singh. Biden hoped for an India that was not full of division, discrimination, and hatred as it is now. He wanted to see India respect minorities and dissidents, not oppress them.

Biden’s election campaign policy document criticizes Modi’s moves in India.

“In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir. Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy.”

The policy paper said, “Joe Biden has been disappointed by the measures that the government of India has taken with the implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act into law. These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”

If Indian strategists consider a continuation of Biden’s assistance of and support for India as demonstrated in the past to be unconditional, it will be a grave mistake.

The Modi government’s attempts to tamper with the venerable Indian characteristics of secularism, pluralism, multi-ethnicity, and multi-religious tolerance have been taken seriously by the US media, and US think-tanks helped broker a nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington in 2008.

Biden’s win may be good news for India if Modi makes sweeping changes to reset his current domestic policies. Otherwise, it is bad news for both Modi and India.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.