The great reset: India

Uncertainty over whether new US leadership will raise thorny issues

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may prove adept at cultivating US President-elect Joe Biden.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may prove adept at cultivating US President-elect Joe Biden.PHOTO: REUTERS

A sense of quiet confidence pervades New Delhi, that ties with Washington will retain the heft acquired under United States President Donald Trump, but uncertainty lurks over whether the Biden presidency will raise some uncomfortable questions.

Against the backdrop of perception that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was far too cosy with Mr Trump, India has this week been recalling President-elect Joe Biden's long-time support for closer ties with Delhi.

In a phone call with Mr Biden on Tuesday, Mr Modi "warmly recalled" his earlier interactions with the President-elect during his visits to the US in 2014 and 2016.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has underlined that Mr Biden is no stranger to India.

He said: "As vice-president, we dealt with him. I happened to be the ambassador during the last phase of the Obama administration. We knew him when he was in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the ranking Democratic member, and then as the chairman."

Still, Delhi wonders whether the Biden presidency will have something to say about India's domestic issues, ranging from the Citizenship Amendment Act - a law critics say goes against the secular traditions of the country as it grants religion-based citizenship - to alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir.

India has traditionally protested against any comments on its internal policies, but this is a bigger issue for Mr Modi, whose politics revolve around nationalism and the idea of a strong India.

The Prime Minister may prove adept at cultivating Mr Biden, said Professor Harsh Pant, director of studies and head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"Mr Modi has been nimble in his outreach to both (Barack) Obama and Trump. He dealt with them very differently. With Trump, the approach Modi decided to take was to develop a personal relationship, massage his ego, which I think paid dividends for India. With Biden, the idea is to go back to the basics of the Obama administration and to use that as a launching point."

India has positioned itself strategically closer to the US amid its worst border clashes in over four decades with China, which saw Delhi throw off hesitation in inviting Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises involving Japan and the US.

The grouping is viewed as adversarial by Beijing.

The growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean is a worry as well, and will likely remain a point of convergence for India and the US.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman at Jawaharlal Nehru University said that she did not envisage a major shift. "The pivot to Asia and rebalancing came under Obama, and the free and open Indo-Pacific vision under Trump. I don't see Biden changing the US approach to maintaining the normative order."

Still, some expect initial turbulence. Retired naval commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the independent think-tank Society for Policy Studies, said: "There is certain baggage from the Trump period. India had in a way aligned itself with the Trump presidency in a more visible manner than is the norm."

He added: "There will be some turbulence in the early stages, but continuity will remain."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2020, with the headline 'Uncertainty over whether new US leadership will raise thorny issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe