Biden, a friend of India, should be mindful of policy gaffes regarding South Asia

Of an estimated 3.5 million-plus Indian American community, about 70 percent are said to be the vote bank of Democrats, a number that the Biden campaign would not want to trifle with, writes Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami for South Asia Monitor

Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami Jul 01, 2020
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If folks in India and Indian Americans in the United States are getting slowly worked up over the former Vice President, Joseph Biden’s recent comments on Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the good and the bad news is that there is more to come. The soon to be formalized Democratic presidential nominee to face off with incumbent President Donald Trump will formally don the mantle in July or August, at which time the Democratic Party will put out its full platform on a range of issues that will include India and South Asia.

 While the Indian American leadership will be carefully looking at the document to see what it has for India and the community as a whole, there will be others, perhaps those supporting the Grand Old Party, who will be making the point that a Republican in the White House is any day better than a Democrat for conservatives bring with them little to no baggage.  And the 'fun' would be double if Biden brings with him Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. On the one hand, there will be this Indian American group that will be going to town about all the goodies that are coming the way of India because Senator Harris has a Chennai ancestry by way of her mother and maybe, to some extent, because she likes masala dosas!

The pragmatic in the Indian American community will have none of this Chennai or masala dosa spin. Irrespective of her origins, and her fond memories of India and Chennai, Senator Harris, in any formal position in the upcoming election, will have to take into account events and policies only from an American point of view. In fact, should she get the Number Two ticket, there will be even more intensive scrutiny of her policies and thinking and, from within the Democratic Party particularly, by those lawmakers who have been highly critical of the present dispensation in New Delhi. Hence, it should not matter to India or to Indian Americans for the bottom line will always be the substance and merits of American foreign and domestic policies.

Policy paper riles Indian Americans

In a policy paper posted on the campaign website which is seen as agenda for the Muslim American community, Biden has asked India to take steps to restore the rights of the people of Kashmir, has expressed disappointment over the CAA and the implementation of the NRC in Assam, stressing that these are inconsistent with India’s tradition of secularism and in sustaining for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy. What has legitimately riled some Indian American leaders is that the policy paper had not taken the trouble to explain the background of the recent initiatives of the Government of India, nor had it placed things in perspective. At one go in the so-called policy paper Biden would seem to include disparate elements such as Kashmir, Assam, Uighurs of Western China and Myanmar’s Rohingyas and in the process reflected a callow differentiation of fact and fiction in South Asia. 

Importance of the Indian American vote

In a political season, observers would understand why is it the Biden campaign—with or without the knowledge of the former vice president—would persist in putting out a one-sided version of events. It is obviously the American Muslim vote that the Democrats are eagerly seeking; but the question to be posed is if in the process the Biden campaign is willing to alienate a huge percentage of the Indian American population, a majority of whom are seen to be Hindus. Of an estimated 3.5 million-plus Indian American community, about 70 percent are said to be the vote bank of Democrats, a number that the Biden campaign would not want to trifle with. Aside from his occasional gaffes that have irritated the Indian American community over the years, Biden is generally seen as a friend of India and one of the Democratic lawmakers who stood by the Bush administration at the time of the US-India civil nuclear deal. That being the case Biden risks losing a tremendous amount of goodwill and votes by allowing one-sided policy papers in his name. 

Political observers have not failed to point out yet another aspect to Biden’s appeasement of American Muslims—the criticality of the African American vote and in not wanting to get on the wrong side of this community where good numbers are Muslims. And the churning of the Democratic politics in the aftermath of the primaries and caucuses has left Biden with no choice than to turn to the so-called progressives and left-leaning Democrats to put on a show of unity within the party. In fact, there are hardliners within the Democratic Party who have questioned the Trump administration’s arms sales to New Delhi at a time when the Modi government is “ethnically cleansing the country’s religious minorities”. So this is something India would have to put up with if there is a change in the power structure in Washington. It does not mean that Biden is a part of this thinking.

India-US ties have come a long way over the last two decades, and a so-called policy paper on a campaign website, while taken note of, is no cause for great alarm. Both New Delhi and Washington are aware of the economic and geostrategic stakes that are involved in the Indo Pacific and beyond. And the substance of the relationship is unlikely to change because of the accent at a 7-11 store in Delaware or because a president or a vice president does not host a Diwali event at the White House!

(The writer, a former senior journalist in Washington with The Hindu and Press Trust of India covering North America and the United Nations, is currently Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, Faculty of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at sridhar54k@gmail.com.)