US elections: What Asia wants (India)

US election: Cosy US-India ties, no matter who is in Oval Office

A poster in New Delhi depicting portraits of Indian soldiers killed during a border clash with Chinese troops in June. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A poster in New Delhi depicting portraits of Indian soldiers killed during a border clash with Chinese troops in June. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In February, when President Donald Trump visited India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was effusive in his praise for the United States leader at a massive rally in Gujarat, the home state of the Indian PM.

He said ties were "far greater and closer", and praised Mr Trump as a leader "who thinks big".

The camaraderie between the two men indicated the comfort level in the relationship between the two sides, something with rare bipartisan support in the US where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is also a proponent of close ties with New Delhi.

There is a sense here, therefore, that India has managed to successfully navigate the choppy waters of political Washington, where an administration led by an unpredictable and volatile president has even taken aim at close allies.

"I think this is a simple matter, by and large, of how India has adjusted now to Mr Trump. Any change in government will be a bit destabilising in the short term," said Professor Harsh V. Pant, director of studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"I don't think there is any particular proclivity for Mr Trump. I think it's a question that he has been managed well by India. There is a level of confidence that if he is re-elected, he can be managed."

Mr Trump's tough rhetoric against Pakistan and China has been of particular comfort to India, which has a troubled relationship with both.

India has thrown off all hesitation in closely aligning with the US, a shift further solidified by the worst border clashes in more than four decades with China in June.

This shift was also apparent in the decision to invite Australia - after years of hesitation - to join the Malabar naval exercises, involving Japan and the US. All four countries are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal security forum seen by China as an adversarial grouping.

Still, there are contentious issues between India and the US which include trade as well as Mr Trump's decision to tighten the visa programme for highly skilled workers, used mostly by Indian software companies.

Indian analysts do not foresee a Biden presidency altering the upward trajectory of close ties, given the convergence of interests over China.

Mr Biden is expected to be more lenient on immigration. New Delhi, however, will be wary of him focusing on India's internal developments, including human rights and Kashmir, an area largely ignored by Mr Trump.

By and large, South Asia is expecting continuity, analysts said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2020, with the headline 'Cosy ties, no matter who is in Oval Office'. Print Edition | Subscribe