A sand sculpture of US President Donald Trump and presidential hopeful Joe Biden is seen on November 3, 2020 at the Bay of Bengal Sea's eastern coast beach at Puri, 65 km from the eastern Indian state Odisha's capital city Bhubaneswar. Photo: NurPhoto

It’s not often that US elections are watched so keenly in India. One of the key reasons is probably the personalities involved, more than the issues. US President Donald Trump and Indian President Narendra Modi, both very conscious of their image, invested heavily in personal relationships with other leaders over the past four years.

With the possibility of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden winning the hotly contested election, the focus of India-US relations is likely to shift once again to the institutional basis of friendship, taking relations to another level in a more transparent manner, making them more predictable.

Rarely in the past, if ever, have Indian leaders put their faith in hugging demonstrations with their counterparts to convince the masses of their global appeal. Modi mobilized the Indian diaspora in Houston at a rally called “Howdy Modi” in September 2019 and returned Trump’s favor in February this year at Ahmedabad’s cricket stadium with an event called “Namaste Trump.” Both events yielded little more than favorable optics.

In the Houston media blitz, what got lost and was cleverly covered up was the trade deal that the US was supposed to sign with India, restoring the concessions for India’s exports. However, Modi’s message that Indians living in the US supported Trump stole the limelight. Trump’s withdrawal in March 2019 from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which affects India’s exports to the US, has not been reversed.

When the US president was visiting New Delhi in February, local police were using force to curb communal riots, stone-throwing, shooting and looting. When pointedly asked a question about the communal riots and the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Trump diplomatically dodged the issue.

In contrast, when then-US president Barack Obama was visiting Delhi against a similar backdrop in 2015, he did some plain-speaking, invoking Mahatma Gandhi in his last speech just before heading home.

The incidents encapsulate the basic difference between the two administrations.

On China, Biden, given his experience as vice president under Obama and his recent tough policy pronouncements, could prove to be more decisive. Biden has been much more critical of China’s policies in Xinjian province (atrocities against the Uyghurs), its treatment of Hong Kong protests and Taiwan than Trump.

A stronger US stand against China could be positive for India, which has been dealing with it both militarily and diplomatically as it addresses China’s incursions into Ladakh.

To be sure, under the Trump administration, the activation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the Malabar naval exercise, and the two-plus-two ministers meeting led by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to have had a more of a US focus than an India focus. India shares a 3,488-km land border with China, most of it un-demarcated and treacherous, so it is careful not to needlessly offend China.  

India is a regional power in its own right, and an emerging global power, and would like to be treated as such, but Trump has been oblivious to this. For example, India’s plan to buy weapons from Russia evoked an unsympathetic response from Trump.

A change in US policy toward Iran could help India immensely. Trump made sure that India stopped getting its energy from Iran, which is the same distance from it as Mumbai is to New Delhi. Washington’s Iran sanctions policy increased India’s import bill and hurt its exports, too. India had to cancel its plan to participate in the Chabahar port project and the construction of a railway line to Afghanistan to contain Pakistan and China in the region.

An isolated Iran is on the verge of signing a long-term agreement with China. Such a pact would make it tougher for India to protect its interests in Iran and Afghanistan and give a freer run to Pakistan and China just as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan without a concrete peace pact with the Taliban. In the past, Pakistan has used Afghan mercenaries to carry out terrorist operations in Kashmir. Now, with China’s military inside Ladakh, such actions could prove dangerous for India.

Rescuing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan to Action (JCPA), which Trump junked in 2018, ignoring the protests of other signatories – the UK, France and Germany – is believed to be on Biden’s list of priorities.  

Trump’s decision to pull out of Kurdish areas of Syria left the Kurds alone at the mercy of Turkey and allowed ISIS prisoners to escape. For America’s allies, such decisions don’t inspire confidence.

Biden’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change could also benefit India, which was hoping for investment from the Green Climate Fund in Indian renewable energy intiatives.

Quite unexpectedly, Trump recently insulted the people of India by saying, “Russia, China, and India are filthy, the air is filthy.” Biden responded, “You don’t speak about friends like that.” This brought Trump’s fickle-mindedness into sharp focus.

The US returning to the Paris Agreement would be a major boost for global environmental efforts.

Some in India are apprehensive because of vice-president candidate Kamala Harris’s criticism of India’s Kashmir policy – the government banned the Internet and detained state leaders for months. But Kamala’s mother moved to the US from India in 1958, so in the future, it could be Harris, not Modi, who will be the focus for Indians in the US.

Biden’s policies could be more predictable, consistent and orthodox. This will likely be beneficial for both the countries in the long run.