India has come a long way when it comes to the United States Presidential elections. The campaigns of both incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney try to claim their man is the better friend of India. Both paraded Indian-Americans at their conventions, even though they are a sliver of the electorate. And it is now de rigueur for the party platforms to devote a few paragraphs to the closeness of India and US. “The major competition between the two regarding India is how best to describe the relationship,” says Karl Inderfurth, head of the US-India chair, Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
India has reached a sweet spot in the US foreign policy debate that is held by Canada or Western Europe. No one can oppose better relations. “Frankly, there is no debate about how important India is in American foreign policy going forward,” said Michele Flournoy, former Pentagon number two and adviser to Obama for America. In an election marked by ferocious attacks against the other side’s policies, criticisms about India policy have been mild. Mitchell Reiss, one of Romney’s large stable of foreign policy advisors, had said, “What I have seen under the current administration is little bit of retreat, little bit of backsliding from the promise that was starting [to be realised under George W. Bush].” That just about summarises the India gap between the two US parties: a little bit.
Both platforms call for strong relations. The Democratic one promises to “continue to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India.” The Republicans are more effusive: “We hereby affirm and declare that India is our geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner.” This is largely because of the slow geopolitical alignment between the two countries. And, says Inderfurth, “At election time there is one more reason: to gain the support of the rapidly growing and influential Indian-American community.” Indian-Americans represent only one per cent of the US population, but compensate with activism, profile and financial contributions.
What has also changed is New Delhi’s attitude. After the first year, New Delhi concluded the new president and his foreign policy represented a regression from the Bush years. Obama was seen as so desperate to get out of Afghanistan that he was prepared to bend backwards with Pakistan. More alarming was his attempt to seek an accommodation with China. India did not make a strong case for itself as PM Manmohan Singh fumbled on purchasing US nuclear reactors — an issue that did more damage to his standing with Obama than any other.
Today, all that is water under the bridge. Beijing rebuffed Obama’s overtures. The US President’s harder line on China in the past few years has followed. Osama Bin Laden was found hiding deep inside Pakistan and blew away the soft AfPak policy. “Nowadays, we are not averse to an Obama return to power,” said an Indian diplomat. The Indian public still has reservations about Obama, largely over his anti-outsourcing rhetoric. Pew surveys showed India to be one of the few countries where pro-American sentiment slipped after Obama became president. His repeated complaints about jobs going from “Buffalo to Bangalore” were largely to blame. So far, however, the White House has talked a lot but done little. Visas for temporary workers have declined, but the recession and the US Congress are more to blame than Obama. The consensus in the US on India is now matched by a similar comfort with both candidates by New Delhi. Indian strategists would probably be marginally happier with a Republican administration. But, as a senior Indian official noted after a meeting with his Obama counterpart, “There is no difference in the worldviews of the two countries.”