Virus poses new challenges to New Delhi’s U.S. policy

Outbreak has weakened Trump, whom India is betting on

Updated - March 14, 2020 10:59 pm IST

Published - March 14, 2020 10:06 pm IST

Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice-President Joe Biden, at a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, in February.

Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice-President Joe Biden, at a debate in Charleston, South Carolina, in February.

The outbreak of COVID-19 across the U.S., taking the administration of President Donald Trump by complete surprise, could inflict the ongoing campaign for the presidential election scheduled for November. This could also have an impact on India-U.S. ties, if the crisis cuts short the Trump presidency to a single term.

The crisis has put the focus sharply on issues that animate politics in the U.S. It exposed the vulnerabilities of the country’s healthcare system that is dependent on its profiteering private sector; its extremely ruthless employment conditions that make it difficult for people to take sick leave; and a wider range of questions regarding the globally distributed manufacturing models that undercut American workers.

How deeply susceptible is the superpower to unpredictable global events beyond its control, and how the country’s political and economic model might exacerbate this weakness have been part of America’s public discourse through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. The current public health crisis could influence the debate further.

One has to see how this alters the complexion of the Democratic primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and the winner’s face-off with Mr. Trump in November. Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders offer two distinctively different critiques of globalisation — the former wants a mercantilist global order, while the latter advocates a dismantling of the trade system that exploits American workers and wants the creation of a social security system for the country. Mr. Biden is the torch-bearer of the neoliberal global order.

Lack of grip

Mr. Trump appeared invincible until a fortnight ago as the economy was looking up and the stock market was on a sustained upward climb. His approval ratings were high. After the public display of his lack of grip over administrative matters, and the stock market thrown into a tail spin, the President’s characteristic ability to blow his own trumpet is now merely jarring. Trump loyalists have figured that the virus is politically life-threatening for them, and have already launched their response — targeting China and topping up their nationalist rhetoric.

Mr. Biden has raced far ahead of Mr. Sanders by uniting establishment Democrats, but the latter will certainly repackage his democratic socialism against the backdrop of the current crisis and give a final push for his candidacy. Either of them will be a credible challenge to Mr. Trump.

If a Democrat wins the White House, India’s U.S. policy, which is now riding on the presumption of Mr. Trump’s invincibility, will be thrown into disarray as much as his rise did in 2016.

The two Democrats in the field have widely diverging viewpoints about the world order, but both share a distaste for India’s Hindutva nationalism. If it is Mr. Biden who wins the nomination, he will have to accommodate a substantial part of Mr. Sanders’s platform ahead of the general election.

Also read| Seeking contrast with Trump, Democrat Biden to give ‘presidential’ speech on coronavirus

The Indian government’s unsophisticated confrontation with the Democrats and the carping of U.S.-based Hindutva groups against them could come back to bite in the event of a change of guard in the White House.

In any case, teetering on the brink of senility, Mr. Biden as President will merely echo the Democratic playbook on South Asia, human rights and communalism in India.

The virus has put Mr. Trump’s re-election plans on ventilator. If he does not survive, India will pay for its decision of aligning with Mr. Trump with a period in the isolation ward.

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