How New Delhi should navigate DC next year
Ties will deepen. But Delhi will have to keep an eye on the Hill’s political attitudes and the administration’s engagement with China
When two friends disagree, yet are able to manage their differences because they have an eye on the big picture, it reflects a certain maturity. In 2022, governments in Delhi and Washington DC have displayed maturity in deepening ties, amid differences.
Sustaining ties, implementing pacts, focusing on convergences, and negotiating divergences requires hard diplomatic groundwork. Joe Biden and Narendra Modi have interacted 15 times, and secretary of state Antony Blinken and external affairs minister S Jaishankar have met over 30 times, a sign of the political commitment to diplomacy.
But with changes underway in Washington’s domestic politics and external approach, Indian diplomacy in DC will have new challenges in 2023.
The first shift is in the complexion of the United States (US) Congress. The Democrats have retained the Senate, but the Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives. This is a recipe for legislative gridlock, investigations against the President, and a possible government shutdown.
It is too early to extrapolate what this means for India, but here is the good news. There is bipartisan support for the strategic relationship. Four actors will play a key role on the Hill, and all their home states have a substantial Indian-American population.
In the Senate, majority leader Chuck Schumer of New York has been supportive of collaboration with India, while Senate foreign relations committee chair, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a tougher nut to crack given his hawkishness on Russia, has not come in the way of deepening ties. On areas such as climate, where Menendez has proposed a standalone clean energy cooperation bill with India, there is room to work together.
In the House, Kevin McCarthy of California will be the Speaker and Michael McCaul of Texas will lead the House foreign affairs committee. Both are friends of India, with McCarthy playing a quiet and positive role in getting a resolution through the House that advocated a waiver of sanctions against India for its procurement of Russian weapons. The Grand Old Party (GOP) also increasingly sees Indian-Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, as a possible source of support, adding a domestic political incentive to driving deeper bilateral ties.
But here is the challenge. With Nancy Pelosi, who commanded respect from all factions, stepping down, a new, younger Democratic leadership is about to take charge. For the party, the midterms have been a vindication of its liberal platform. The core of the party remains progressive, seen in the Congressional leadership’s critique of its own administration’s decision to provide immunity for Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. So even if their numbers have dipped, expect progressive factions to raise issues of democracy and human rights in India, though their main focus will be domestic.
On the Republican side, minority advocacy groups are projecting Indian Christians as under attack and flagging restrictions on foreign funding, something that resonates with the evangelical lobby. The GOP will also seek greater concessions from India on trade and intellectual property and push Delhi to buy from the American defence industry.
None of this is a deal-breaker and both parties know India’s strategic value. But as American politics heats up in the run-up to the 2024 polls, India may have to be prepared for more noise on its domestic trajectory. Active, sustained and quiet outreach to the Congressional leadership, newly elected Senators, representatives and staffers is key to ensuring that the noise doesn’t spiral into the domain of action. Holding elections in Kashmir and toning down communally polarising political techniques at home (which is also in India’s own interest) will give diplomats greater room.
The second shift is in the administration’s engagement with China. Joe Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping has set the stage for dialogue between the two governments. As the US heads towards a possible recession, the corporate lobby, which remains invested in ties with China, will push DC towards a reset of ties.
Here is the good news for India.
There is clarity among both political leaders and the deep State in Washington about China as the most consequential strategic threat to America. There won’t be any return to the G2 type fantasy — of DC and Beijing sharing global responsibilities. Across the institutional maze of the National Security Council, Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, State and Commerce departments, there is a consistent effort to track and tame China’s ambitions.
Delhi need not panic each time there is a US-China meeting. In fact, if both sides maintain channels of communication, it is good. Delhi benefits from US-China competition but will be under pressure in various ways if this descends to conflict. Deterring and weakening Beijing is the aim, not fighting it.
At the same time, the Republican House will ensure that the administration does not go too far in its engagement with China. Party leaders are toying with the idea of appointing a select committee dedicated to China. From raising Hunter Biden’s alleged business dealings with Beijing to the origins of Covid-19, human rights to Taiwan, trade and tariffs to the Indo-Pacific, the Republicans will make it politically untenable for the administration, even if it so wishes, to reset ties beyond a threshold. Without intervening in American domestic debates, India’s quiet diplomacy can, on the margins, play a role in keeping the balance just right.
In 2023, India’s core objective in DC should be to consolidate ties, manage differences that will inevitably surface, engage with both parties, maintain American support for the G20 presidency, nurture new constituencies of support, ensure that the strategic convergence remains salient, and expand cooperation in areas of the future — all with the aim of building its capabilities, while retaining its redlines. As Delhi decides on its envoy for DC, it should prioritise a sharp political understanding of the US, institutional experience, personal networks, grip on geopolitics and geoeconomics, and the ability to sell the India story — as a diverse democracy, a geopolitical partner, and an economic opportunity.
The views expressed are personal