After telephonic conversations with a few European leaders last week, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden told the media, “I’m letting them know that America is back. We’re going to be back in the game.” Mr. Biden has signalled that he will revert to the traditional norms and patterns of American foreign policy and, more so, its diplomacy. The abrasive turbulence of the Donald Trump era will give way to calmer and predictable American policies and postures as Mr. Biden will seek to re-establish, in large measure, American involvement in the critical issues of our times. Like Mr. Trump, he will manage China’s aggressive rise but in a sober diplomatic style.
What New Delhi can expect
How will Mr. Biden impact Indian interests? In particular, how will India handle what can be anticipated to become a strand in Mr. Biden’s, the Democratic Party’s and the American liberal community’s agenda, namely, an emphasis on civil and human rights and freedoms? Specifically, will the Narendra Modi 2.0 government continue to ignore, as it did last year, the concerns expressed in American liberal circles about some of its decisions? Or, will it in the wake of Mr. Biden’s victory, purposefully engage this opinion?
There is no doubt that there is bipartisan support for the Indian-American partnership; it is based on a congruence of interests especially in the security and economic spheres. Mr. Biden is part of the American consensus supporting a deepening of bilateral ties in these areas. India’s political and security elites have shed their inhibitions of a closer relationship with America. China’s actions since April this year along the Line of Actual Control have strengthened the case of India-America defence and security cooperation. India’s signing of all the foundational agreements and its full participation in the Quad did not attract domestic criticism; this would not have been so in the past. It can also be expected that bilateral trade and immigration issues will positively move ahead from an Indian viewpoint under a Biden administration.
It is ironic that at a time when Indian and American interests are becoming increasingly congruent in the security sphere, there is a growing perception among American liberals that India is moving away from its foundational moorings. In the earlier eras, while the security interests of the two countries diverged, the American system acknowledged a commonality in national values. India’s democratic order was held as a good example for emulation by the developing world. India then had the empathy of the liberals while there was antipathy in sections of the American establishment dealing with security. Now, the opposite may happen.
The Obama phase
The Narendra Modi 1.0 government dealt with the Obama administration for the first half of its term and the very different Trump administration in the latter half. Reflecting the American interest in India adhering to its commitment to the values of freedom, including religious, and equality, Mr. Obama laid emphasis on these aspects in his Siri Fort address on January 27, 2015 (https://bit.ly/2KaYRGx). He said, “Our nations are strongest when we see that we are all God’s children — all equal in His eyes and worthy of His love.” He went on to recall, “Our freedom of religion is written into our founding documents.” The context of these remarks was obviously some incidents of lynching that had occurred in the name of cow protection. The Narendra Modi government did not really react to Mr. Obama’s words.
Security, economy for Trump
The Trump administration was not concerned about human rights not only during the Narendara Modi 1.0 government but also after Modi 2.0 began. It focused on the security and economic spheres though its officials made a few ineffectual noises on the administrative steps taken after the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on August 5, 2019. It largely and correctly implied that the constitutional changes were within India’s domestic jurisdiction. However, some members of the Democratic Party and the liberal sections of the American media were deeply concerned with the detentions and other steps taken by the government to ensure peace in J&K. These concerns grew with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Secure in the support of the Trump administration, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar decided to ignore the more trenchant critics of the government’s decisions on J&K. This included Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal who is of Indian origin and is a left of centre Democratic party member from Washington state. She had introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives criticising the administrative steps taken in J&K after August 5 last year. Mr. Jaishankar said that he was not interested in meeting her and went to the extent of cancelling a meeting with the leaders of the House Foreign Relations committee because Ms. Jayapal would have been present at the meeting. Significantly, the U.S. Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris, defended Ms. Jayapal and tweeted that she stood with her.
Rights issues on the horizon
The refusal to not engage American critics of the government’s decisions on J&K and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act because they had ‘closed minds’ was also reflected in Mr. Jaishankar’s comment to a well-known Indian commentator on foreign policy on the lack of diligence in the reporting of “really top line publications” on these issues (https://bit.ly/3kFnAPO). Mr. Jaishankar also asserted, “My reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York.”
It may not be as easy under the Biden dispensation to ignore American liberal opinion as it was during the Trump years. They will bring a degree of pressure to bear on the administration to more vigorously pursue the issues of rights including minority rights with the Modi government. The Biden administration will no doubt be partially responsive to these pressures and some lecturing can be expected. Will the Modi government, on its part, continue to ignore the likes of Ms. Jayapal especially because of the certainty that on account of the Chinese challenge to world order, India-U.S. cooperation in security and defence will not slow down?
The question though is should an Indian government abandon the path of engagement with foreign critics even if they are prejudiced? The disengagement policy being pursued with Pakistan is valid because dialogue with a country which uses terrorism as a part of its security doctrine should be unacceptable. But American liberals do not promote violence. Should not correct perspectives be provided to even biased critics among them? Of course, it is only for the Indian people and government to take sovereign decisions, and while doing so, reject any and all intrusiveness. But such rejection is also best done through engaging critics.
It is sad that Mr. Jaishankar’s interlocutor did not probe him on his ideas regarding what he would like India’s reputation to be. Also, on the values and systems that have gone into the making of India’s reputation. The Sangh Parivar puts a premium on India being recognised as Jagadguru. The Modi government has sought to spread India’s soft power with some success. The path to recognition as a guru for India lies through becoming a strong but humane state and achieving the constitutional aspiration of an inclusive and just society. Indeed, these objectives animate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of sabkasaath , sabkavikas , sabkavishwas not only for the country but the world.
Indian diplomacy must realise that it cannot promote these ideas without engaging the country’s foreign critics even those with seemingly closed minds. And is not opening closed minds the ultimate test of diplomacy?
Vivek Katju is a retired member of the Indian Foreign Service