Ottawa: With less than two weeks to go before the US election, many in Delhi, and beyond, are wondering which candidate would be better for India, and Indo-Americans. Indo-Americans are a coveted demographic in US politics. As a group, they are one of the most prosperous, and are increasingly influential in Washington. Traditionally, they vote mostly Democrat, however, there is a growing swing towards the Republicans making them, and their financial and political support, potentially “up for grabs”.
Republican candidate Donald J. Trump has realised this and is actively trying to engage with Indo-Americans, and India. On 15 October, he appeared at a Republican Hindu Coalition rally in New Jersey with the theme “Humanity United Against Terrorism” to raise funds for Kashmiri Pandits and Hindu terror victims in Bangladesh. With thousands of mostly Indo-Americans in attendance, Trump said: “India is a strategic ally for the US. I look forward to deepening the diplomatic and military cooperation that is shared between both countries… India has been a great friend to the US in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism… We’re going to have a phenomenal future together…I love India.” Trump also praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s streamlining of the Indian bureaucracy, and said he was “a big fan of Hindus, and a big fan of India.” Trump then released a video called “Ab ki Baar Trump Sarkar”, featuring clips from the event. In it he said: “India and Hindus will have a true friend in the White House once I’m elected…Under a Trump administration, we will become better friends, best friends.”
The outreach has also included Trump’s extended family. Last week, daughter-in-law Lara Trump celebrated Diwali at the Rajdhani temple near Washington, DC.
In contrast, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has yet to personally address a primarily Indo-American event. Also, having had a much, much longer time in public service, she has more of a track record with engagement with India that doesn’t necessarily help her if she is trying to reach out to India itself. Myriad lists are circulating online with titles like “Bill & Hillary Clinton: 25 years of anti-India hostility!” Issues raised include: then President Bill Clinton’s sanctions against India after the nuclear tests in 1998; Bill Clinton administration’s seeming pro-Pakistan tilt on issues like Kashmir, as well as the favouring of China over India (for example by blocking the sale of Cray supercomputers to India, but approving them for China); Bill and Hillary’s hiring and support for Robin Raphel (a former State Department official who was considered pro-Pakistan by Delhi and who was subsequently investigated by the FBI for possible espionage); and extensive diplomatic problems between India and the US resulting from the time of Hillary Clinton’s post as Secretary of State, including the resignation of the US ambassador to India who was appointed while Clinton was in office.
Clinton’s choice for Vice President, Tim Kaine, also has a track record with India. As recently as June, in his capacity as Senator from Virginia, Kaine actively participated in hearings that criticised India in the lead up to Modi’s address to Congress. Not afraid to make comments about domestic Indian politics, Senator Kaine, a former missionary, said: “Some members of the Indian-American community in Virginia, many of whom are Sikh, have expressed concerns about issues of religious tolerance and liberty in India. I hope that Prime Minister Modi continues efforts to better protect the inalienable rights afforded to all people, just as we fight against expressions of religious intolerance in our own political climate.”
Given the rocky path Clinton and her extended team have trodden with India over the past decades, it would greatly help her case in Delhi as a “friend of India” if she were to make a more overt effort to break with the past and reach out to India as a true strategic partner.
The way it is now, many in Delhi agree with strategist, Prof M.D. Nalapat when he writes: “Clinton is cocooned within a foreign policy establishment that is nervous about the scale of its past errors being exposed, and is consequently doubling down on the very policies that are resulting in the slow collapse of US global primacy at hands of China and its partner, Russia.”
Clinton’s team might also want to rethink its strategy for reaching Indo-Americans, a growing number of whom are drifting towards the Republicans. Many find Trump’s messages of being “tough on terror”, lowering corporate taxes, and favouring legal immigration over illegal immigration to be quite attractive.
Trump has a marked advantage over Clinton as he has no track record as a public servant, so it is difficult to know what he would actually do, as opposed to what he says. But, right now, he is making a personal effort with both India and Indo-Americans. For whatever reason, India seems to be one country that Trump “loves”.
So which candidate would be better for India, and Indo-Americans? Indo-Americans are a very varied group, so it really depends on individual priorities. But the interesting thing is that we are even asking the question given that, as a group, they were for so long considered a “safe” Democratic bloc.
As for India, barring a major shift, with Clinton as President it is likely Delhi will see more of what it saw when she was Secretary of State. With Trump as President, India will have to wait until 9 November to find out if it really is true “love”, or if it’s a one (election) night stand.
Whichever way it goes, India’s foreign policy environment is like to get much more complicated very quickly.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.