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Thursday, Oct 17, 2019

Why a divided US Congress is good news for India

The worst of times for American Presidents are among the best for India-US engagement

columns Updated: Nov 09, 2018 17:46 IST
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a "Make America Great Again" rally, October 10. In the months ahead, Trump will have far more challenges to face than in the previous two years.(AFP)

As fireworks were going off in India on Diwali (within the two-hour Supreme Court-mandated window in some parts, or not), America was witnessing pyrotechnics it has been accustomed to in recent times – verbal bombs lobbed by its 45th President Donald Trump, at a press conference that was less amiable than a bar brawl.

This was hours after Trump’s Republican Party ceded control of the House of Representatives to the opposition Democrats, thereby having the US Congress reflect the deep division within the country. While an expected Blue Wave never quite washed over America, the tide appears to have turned.

In the months ahead, Trump will have far more challenges to face than in the previous two years. And that could actually be a positive development for New Delhi. As recent history suggests, embattled American Presidents, unable to make progress domestically, often play for foreign policy wins. As non-controversial as India is for the American public, that’s an easy option.

In 2010, days after being walloped in the Congressional race, losing the House and Senate, then President Barack Obama sought succour in India, where he announced US support for a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council. Over succeeding years, in a wasteland of global disasters, (remember the spread and savagery of the Islamic State?), India offered him a rare diplomatic oasis.

Four years earlier, after Obama’s predecessor suffered similar losses in the Congress, with Democrats securing majorities in the House and Senate, George W Bush pushed for quick passage of the India-US civilian nuclear agreement in the latter, lame duck, chamber. He even used executive privilege on foreign affairs to deliver a signing statement that dulled the edge of some provisions in the Bill passed by the Senate.

And, of course, in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky affair and an impeachment in the US House of Representatives, Bill Clinton travelled to India in March 2000, bringing warmth to the chill between the two nations following the Pokhran II nuclear tests. That he made the briefest of stops in Islamabad marked by a hectoring radio address, may only have further endeared him at that time to the Indian establishment.

This track record exists: That of the worst of times for American Presidents being among the best for India-US bilateral engagement. Trump’s Administration may already be focused on an Indo-Pacific agenda that attempts to corner China and the post-election phase may well see the efforts at targeting Beijing expand. Not least because being a man of such fragile ego, Trump is irate at China taking out advertorials in heartland publications ahead of the midterms to criticise his trade policies.

Trump won’t be flying into India any time soon, having missed an opportunity to being the Guest of Honour at next year’s Republic Day, but a weaker occupant of the White House will likely provide a stronger impetus to ties between the two countries.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 09, 2018 17:45 IST

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