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With Biden, India may need a new template

The new administration in the United States, of Joseph R. Biden, and the 117th U.S. Congress, two separate branches in the American system of governance, hit the road running with a sense of purpose to ‘heal’ the country and restore its leadership role in the world.

Now, with the Congress settling down to find its rhythm, it would turn attention to issues the Members are committed to and their constituents push for. While pursuing their agenda on The Hill, members tend to work together building support among colleagues as they move towards legislative action.

 

Early conversations between the leaderships in both countries offer an insight into the priorities of the Biden administration in furtherance of strategic bilateral ties amid early signs that the mood on Capitol Hill could be less favourable.

Message by the India Caucus

India does enjoy bipartisan support in the Congress but the first signal of a possible direction can be interpreted from the recent formal interaction that members of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives had with the Indian envoy in Washington DC. Founded in the early 1990s, it is the largest country-specific caucus on The Hill.

Caucus co-chair Brad Sherman (Democrat) and Steve Chabot (Republican), along with Vice Chair Rohit ‘Ro’ Khanna (Democrat), organised a meet with the Indian Ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, with particular reference to the farmers’ protest in India. Irrespective of who took the initiative for the meeting, the message delivered by the Caucus underscored its priority.

 

A formal statement by Mr. Sherman said the group urged the Government of India to make sure that the norms of democracy are maintained and that protesters are allowed to protest in a peaceful manner with access to the Internet and journalists. “All friends of India hope that the parties can reach an agreement,” was the message as a few other Congressmen took to social media on the farmers’ issue separately.

Rohit ‘Ro’ Khanna is one of the youngest among the four Indian-Americans in the current House of Representatives, the others being Dr. Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, and Raja Krishnamoorthi. He identifies with the progressives group that has more members in the current Democratic Party set-up and is a powerful voice. Mr. Khanna was associated with the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders considered Left and keeping him company in the group is Ms. Jayapal (Democrat). It was her possible presence in a meeting with members in the Congress, that led to India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar cancelling the engagement in December 2019 when he was in the U.S. This made then Senator Kamala Harris join issue.

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Indian community is a force

While interaction between government officials is a regular exercise, there is another significant dimension to the growth of bilateral relations. It is the immense contribution of the Indian-Americans, the second largest immigrant community with a strength of four million plus people.

The massive effort by this highly educated and economically strong community makes it count as one of the most influential groups in the U.S. From the time when India came under sanctions following the Pokhran explosions, to the time the U.S. Congress voted on the civil nuclear deal, Indian-Americans have played a key role in transforming the relations.

Yet, over the past few years, there has been a divergence in the preferences of the community. A recent survey on attitudes of Indian Americans by Carnegie, Johns Hopkins and University of Pennsylvania offers an understanding into many facets.

 

The community today may be less willing to engage with lawmakers and their aides with the same sense of purpose it did earlier on account of differing perceptions of events in India. In addition, over the past decade-and a-half, a number of Indian-Americans have found their way into various branches of the administration and the Congress.

Assessments and response

These second-generation members of Indian-Americans have their own individual assessment of developments in India, making it tougher for New Delhi to put forward a convincing argument from its perspective to counter perceptions. In America’s way of working, the standpoint of aides go in as valuable inputs for hard-nosed policy drafters while preparing documents for the administration and the Congress.

The farmers’ protests in India attracted attention across the world and found resonance in the U.S. too. The sharp reaction in India to comments on social media by Rihanna and Meena Harris came around the time when racial justice and the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement remains strong in the current American political discourse.

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India, of course, has stepped up its outreach on the Hill and New Delhi enjoys an advantage to the extent that both Mr. Jaishankar and the current Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, served as Indian envoys in Washington DC. Both are well-versed with the way the city functions inside the Beltway.

Adding sinews to this effort is the pace of engagement by Indian missions. A leading Indian think-tank too opened its U.S. arm to supplement efforts in a city where the hiring of a professional lobby firm in Washington DC is well-accepted practice.

A direction pointer

A challenge in the current scenario would also be to translate the intent expressed at the last India-U.S. 2+2 meeting, in October 2019, of establishing an India-U.S.-Parliamentary Exchange for formal and reciprocal visits by parliamentarians. This is because opinion articulated by lawmakers has an amplifier effect and at times determines the path for the administration.

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The accumulated reservoir of goodwill by Indians should help in defining the future course of bilateral ties; but it would require imaginative engagement to deal with the Democrat-controlled House, making it easier for the new administration to work on its India-centric plans. A test case waits in the form of CAATSA, or Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, as India moves ahead to procure the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

K.V. Prasad was a Fulbright-American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 6:34:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/with-biden-india-may-need-a-new-template/article33991781.ece

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