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US election makes India search for better diplomatic ideas

Indian Prime Minister Modi had gone a bit beyond diplomatic niceties in supporting Donald Trump

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: November 11, 2020 10:52 AM GMT
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US election makes India search for better diplomatic ideas

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus as he appears on a television in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Nov. 9. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP)

With the twist it took at the end, the US election has turned out to be a "sour grapes" story for India.

Under pro-Hindu hardliner Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ruling dispensation in India had invested heavily in the US polls favoring Republican Donald Trump. But once the result came out, the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Modi himself, were all praise for Democrat Joe Biden.

The winner takes it all is just one part of the story. Pragmatism must be the other part.

"As the VP [vice president under Obama], your contribution to strengthening Indo-US relations was critical and invaluable. I look forward to working closely together once again to take India-US relations to greater heights," Modi himself wrote in his congratulatory message to Biden.

Looking back, the fiercely fought US poll outcome is a setback for Modi as he had gone a bit beyond diplomatic niceties when he said in September 2019 in Houston that the next American elections would ensure the return of the "Trump Sarkar" (Trump government).

The slogan "Abki Baar Trump Sarkar" (this time Trump government) was coined in 2016 by the Republican Hindu Coalition, which had supported Trump and campaigned for him among Indian-Americans. Hindus, both in America and India, seemed to celebrate some similarities between Modi and Trump.

Both leaders have been known for their whimsical style of functioning and a clear anti-Muslim stance. And pro-Hindu groups in India temperamentally welcome those who stand against Muslims.

Joe Biden could be a bit different here. Democrats are more often projected as those fighting Trump's anti-Muslim policies. In his maiden victory speech, Biden spoke clearly about a "healing touch", perhaps reflecting his Catholic conviction.

In fact, when Modi had made the statement in support of Trump in the polls, his opponents in Indian domestic politics suggested Modi had erred in taking sides in the election of another country.

This also allegedly violated established diplomatic norms. Congress leader Anand Sharma said it plainly. "Mr. Prime Minister, you have violated the time-honored principle of Indian foreign policy of not interfering in the domestic elections of another country. This is a singular disservice to the long-term strategic interests of India."

But it is not Modi or the BJP alone who committed the mistake. A sizable section of Asian Americans, particularly Hindus of Indian origin, support Trump, perhaps swayed by his anti-Muslim utterances.

However, this school of thought says that despite the outcome, which perhaps will still be decided by the US courts, Republicans showed a considerable increase in their vote base. Trump captured about 7.3 million more votes than he did in 2016. The Republicans also gained five seats in the US House of Representatives.

Of course, Trump will hold the dubious distinction of being the first president in the last 100 years to have failed to get re-elected for a second term for the Republican Party.

"People of America still showed faith in Trump — something Indians and especially Hindus continued to do with Modi despite the prime minister's failures to give jobs, bring in 'acchey din' (good days) as promised in 2014 and in controlling the overall economy," says political observer Vidyarthi Kumar.

He said it was similar in the US. Despite Trump's failures to deal with the coronavirus and the sagging economy, people in many places voted exactly as they did in 2016.

The political polarization has stuck in the US, as does political and religious polarization in India. It means that no matter how devastating the socioeconomic and developmental outcome of a government is, a section of society will continue to support a party because of ideology.

In many quarters, the poll results show fewer people crossed party lines in the world's most powerful democracy despite the economic crash, joblessness and social unrest over police killings of black people.

But in India and many Asian countries, people are also debating whether Trump's decision to bank on Asian Americans, and to an extent African Americans, actually boomeranged.

The US administration's China-bashing in Asia ahead of the polls was not without reason.

One argument has been that numbers do matter in electoral arithmetic. As many as 4.7 percent of the American electorate in this year's polls were ethnically Asian. The number of eligible Asian American voters grew by a staggering 139 percent between 2000 and 2020.

President Trump had made his China-centric onslaught a key part of his campaign to secure a second term against Biden. Ironically, China still does not believe the US poll results and says it will react to Biden's election only after the American courts clear things.

Contrary to the Trump team's expectations, Asian Americans and people of Indian origin perhaps showed more faith in Biden's running mate and now Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Harris has hardly anything to do with India except that she is the daughter of cancer biologist Shyamala Gopalan, who migrated to the US decades ago and married Jamaican Donald Harris.

However, she is considered a strong supporter of human rights and particularly of Kashmiri people's rights, mostly Muslims. Have the Kamala angle and Biden's healing-touch approach swayed Muslims in America to vote for the Democrat candidate this time?

BJP leader Ram Madhav has tried to analyze it, giving a rhetorical touch. "It must be understood that US-India ties stand on a mutually beneficial bipartisan and strong footing. But what India looks for is an America that brings with it many allies. Sadly, Trump's America was largely isolated ... In politics, we fight with our adversaries. But in diplomacy, we reach out and win them over," he wrote.

Modi and the BJP enjoyed Trump's friendship and support. But it has become sour grapes now. The art now is to turn what is available sweet. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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