With Biden's strong India record, top US diplomat Blinken arrives in Delhi

Feb 28, 2023 11:20 AM IST

The Biden administration has only taken forward a legacy that was initiated by Bill Clinton with his historic visit to India in 2000

As United States (US) Secretary of State Antony J Blinken arrives in Delhi for his second visit to India, two years into President Joe Biden’s term, he will be representing an administration that has already proved to be among the most consequential when it comes to America’s relationship with India.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (AFP)

To be sure, the Biden team has only taken forward a legacy that was initiated by Bill Clinton with his historic visit to India in 2000. This was elevated by George W Bush, who displayed a unique personal commitment to the nuclear deal.

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It was sustained by Barack Obama, who became the first American president to attend Republic Day as chief guest. And it was taken forward by the mercurial Donald Trump, who remained relatively predictable on India and whose strategic shift on China lent the relationship with Delhi added importance.

Biden is, thus, the fifth American president to invest political commitment in India. But his term, while representing continuity, has also marked a departure.

When he took office two years ago after a turbulent process of transfer of power, there were apprehensions about what it would mean for the relationship with India because of its domestic trajectory and perceived role in American politics.

There was also a lack of clarity about the US’s posture towards China. There was suspicion due to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Bilateral ties witnessed one of the most difficult geopolitical tests the relationship has had to endure in the last two decades — the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Yet, Biden and Blinken have recognised India’s constraints, accepted its unique status, treated India’s concerns with respect, made Delhi a partner in global conversations, dealt with differences with maturity, and taken steps to redefine the relationship. No president has done as much in the first two years of his term for the India relationship and given as much attention to it as Biden has.

The political apprehension

The apprehensions about what a Biden presidency would mean for India stemmed from three key sources.

One, key progressive Democrats had been critical of India’s domestic political trajectory under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In 2019, after the decisions on Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, India became a subject of intense criticism on the Hill and among Democrats vying for the presidential nomination.

While Obama, a Democrat, dealt with the BJP-led government, as domestic polarisation increased in India and concerns deepened about its perceived “democratic backsliding”, there was uncertainty about how a new Democratic administration would engage with a “new India”.

But while American officials may individually express discomfort with the evolution of Indian politics, and segments within the US administration — particularly the office of religious freedom in the State Department — and on Capitol Hill may be publicly critical, Biden and Blinken have not let their ideological orientation cloud their judgment of India.

There is a systemic recognition that Narendra Modi is India’s legitimately elected prime minister with overwhelming popularity, lending the country a high degree of political stability in a turbulent neighbourhood.

There is a sense of the transformative policy changes in India that opens up opportunities for American national security and economic interests.

There is a belief that the strategic relationship with India, read the shared anxiety about China, is too important to be jeopardised.

Officials know neither the US nor India are perfect democracies, but they can only deal with a communist China if they work together.

But the victory of pragmatism also stems from other sources. This is not the unipolar moment anymore and the US knows that it doesn’t quite have instruments to follow up critical public statements to effect real change, and if it embarks on an interventionist policy, it risks alienating public opinion in India.

Its experience with the Saudi regime — Biden came to office promising to teach the regime a lesson for its alleged role in the killing of writer, activist, and US permanent resident Jamal Khashoggi only to visit Riyadh to make up — was an illustration of the limits of American power.

And the US itself, after the Donald Trump years and January 6, lost the enormous moral authority to lecture other countries on democracy.

Realism won. And while there are concerns privately expressed, and Indian diplomacy has to spend an extraordinary amount of time in damage control exercises because of political actions at home that can be interpreted as authoritarian and intolerant, the nature of India’s political regime did not become a constraint in the relationship.

India’s bipartisan outreach

The second source of apprehension emerged from India’s role in American politics. Key Democrats had been wary because of what had come across as the BJP’s somewhat partisan approach in favour of the Republicans, exemplified in the Howdy Modi event in Houston and the Modi-Trump rally in Ahmedabad in an election year.

When Indian ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu took charge in early 2020, he focused on bridge-building across the political aisle.

A veteran US hand, Sandhu was a young political officer after the Indian nuclear tests in the late 1990s and then the deputy chief of mission between 2013 and 2016.

Democrats, incidentally, were in power both times and Sandhu reached out to his older contacts, including in Joe Biden’s core foreign policy team, to re-establish a connection.

On August 15, 2020, to mark India’s Independence Day, both Blinken and Biden’s future national security adviser Jake Sullivan sent messages of solidarity and support that indicated that Biden’s team valued India and recognised its importance.

From the Indian side, perhaps the most important political signal of its bipartisan approach to US politics came on November 8, 2020.

Even as Trump was questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election outcome, Modi sent out a tweet congratulating Biden on his “spectacular victory”.

Biden’s team took note of the fact that India had respected the democratic outcome and had not been swayed by Trump, and nine days later, Biden and Modi spoke on the phone.

On January 6, when Trump instigated a mob to attack the US Capitol, Modi tweeted once again, saying he was “distressed” with the news about the rioting and violence in Washington DC and underlined the importance of orderly and peaceful transfer of power and respect for democratic processes.

The sound political judgment exercised by India at each stage in the American electoral process helped bury the perceptional damage caused.

Since then, India has been extensively in touch with both sides of the political spectrum. It helps that external affairs minister S Jaishankar is arguably the finest mind on the intricacies of US politics in the Indian system.

Sandhu has developed cordial ties with key White House officials, with deputy NSA Jon Finer even calling him among the “most effective ambassadors in Washington”. His past experience on the Hill means he is deeply attuned to the shifts in the US Congress; just take an example from the past two weeks. While Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, took probably the most high-powered Senate delegation to ever visit India, House speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed Sandhu to his home state in California and committed to visiting India during his tenure.

While Delaware governor, John Carney, a Democrat from Biden’s home state, visited Delhi, Sandhu spoke to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, billed to be a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024.

The engagement has also extended to states. In the past few months alone, Sandhu has visited California, Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and Massachusetts among other states.

And the outreach has credibility because India has value for American politicians. There is the diaspora angle, as both parties woo Indian Americans.

But beyond that, India has offered itself as a partner on health (as the pharma of the world); energy (as both an importer of American energy and an ally on renewable energy); technology (as the source of a large talent pool, a trusted geography and a market); economy (as a trading partner, a source of investment in American markets, and a destination for American capital).

All of this is music to the ears of Senators, Congressmen, governors, and state legislators, across party lines. India remains one of the few issues on which both parties agree in a divided polity.

China reset

The third source of apprehension emerged from concern in segments in Delhi that while Trump had reset the US’s strategic orientation towards China and adopted a hawkish approach, it wasn’t clear whether Democrats would persist with it.

But the US, under Biden, has continued not just Trump’s aggressive position on China but adopted a smarter whole-of-government approach towards Beijing and strengthened mechanisms such as Quad to counter China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

It helped that the core team Biden assembled was united in their approach to China and was aware of India’s importance in the strategic equation.

Sullivan, Blinken, Central Intelligence Agency director Bill Burns (a key negotiator during the nuclear deal) had all worked with India in past avatars.

They recognised that the threat posed by China to the global order, US interests, and peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific had only increased under Xi Jinping and heeded lessons from the last time they were in office under Obama.

Sullivan populated his national security council with those with a solid track record of understanding the China threat.

Kurt Campbell became the coordinator of a newly created Indo-Pacific cell within the Council.

Laura Rosenberger and Rush Doshi took on the China account, and Tarun Chhabra took on the tech and national security account.

In State Department, deputy secretary Wendy Sherman and undersecretary Victoria Nuland carried no illusions about Beijing. Donald Lu — who had done two postings in Delhi and served as ambassador to Kazakhstan retained an instinctive appreciation for Indian democracy and seen what Chinese expansionism meant in Asia — became the assistant secretary for South and Central Asia.

And at Pentagon, secretary of defense Lloyd Austin and assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific affairs Ely Ratner knew China was the challenge of the present and the future. The only exception was climate envoy John Kerry who sought a more harmonious relationship with Beijing but he was in a minority.

Republicans or Democrats, there is now a consensus in the political and deep State in Washington about Beijing — and India has been the net beneficiary.

Three tests

In the Biden years, the relationship passed through three tests, and in some ways, each of them strengthened ties. The first was Covid-19 when the US mobilised all possible support during the Delta wave in India in the summer of 2021. Biden echoed Trump when he said that India had helped the US in distress, and the US would do the same.

To many observers of the relationship, besides the humanitarian dimension, the sense of urgency displayed by American leaders at the time showed that the US was invested in ensuring that India did not fail.

The second test was Afghanistan, where the Biden administration continued with the badly conceived Doha agreement with the Taliban and pulled out troops, only to see Kabul fall.

Indian security interests were greatly imperiled. But in this case, Delhi chose not to chide Washington in public and recognised that the US had spent two decades in the country and there was a little political appetite for continued military presence. Instead, the withdrawal reduced American dependence on Pakistan. And India and the US began to develop a closer understanding of the redlines the international community should impose vis-a-vis Kabul.

And finally, Ukraine emerged as a big source of stress in the relationship. But as HT documented in an essay last week, Washington underplayed the differences, India conveyed its predicament honestly, and DC has now come to see Delhi as an important channel to Moscow in moments of crisis.

As Blinken and Burns said, India’s clear message to Vladimir Putin on the unacceptability of nuclear weapons helped last year. India’s own position evolved as it chose not to criticise Moscow in public but underlined its commitment to principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, quietly expedited attempts to diversify ties, and doubled down on its relationships with both Europe and the US. Differences persist of course, as the US insistence on introducing the Ukraine question in G20 deliberations makes India’s task of finding a consensus difficult — but the bilateral relationship has emerged stronger from the test.

It is against this backdrop that Blinken will arrive in Delhi to lay the ground for deeper ties, share assessments, and prepare for Modi’s possible state visit to Washington this summer and Biden’s visit to Delhi this September. India and the US have proven the sceptics wrong again

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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