US President Donald Trump will square off against Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a keenly anticipated debate on Wednesday. They will lock horns on issues as varied as the coronvirus pandemic response, race riots, corruption, economy and foreign policy in a debate moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, at 06:30am IST.
Analysts have already predicted a broad outline of the show. Trump will be at his bombastic best, relying on outrageous moments of shock-and-awe (he insisted that Biden take a drug test pre-debate), while Biden will remain measured but no less resolute. On the cultural front, Trump is expected to lash out against the Democratic Party's supposed support for the Black Lives Matter movement (protests of the organisation had, at times, devolved into chaos) and insurgent left-wing organisations like the Antifa. On the corruption front, Biden will surely highlight the latest New York Times expose on Trump's tax returns, while Trump is expected to hit back with allegations of overseas corruption involving Joe Biden's son Hunter. The pandemic management, and the economic devastation that followed, are all expected to figure in the debate.
However, the most interesting aspect will be the foreign policy approach of the two administrations. And that is where India comes into the equation.
What will be the significance of India?
Trump's foreign policy playbook, in the mildest of terms, was unpredictable and teetering on two extremes. He turned the US against some of its staunchest allies in the European Union, tried to broker some semblance of peace with Russia (and failed), turned ultra-hawkish on Iran, and made a very decisive pro-Israeli tilt in the Middle East.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, will be expected to reconcile the scattergun approach to a more centrist line, resembling that of former US premier Barack Obama.
In almost every single topic of global importance, the foreign policy approaches of the two rivals vastly differ; Except one—India. And therein lies the country's significance.
Iran: Trump, led by his hawkish advisors, unilaterally pulled out of a historic nuclear deal with the Islamic republic and placed an extreme chokehold of economic sanctions that were designed to buckle Tehran into submission. A Biden administration will try to mollify Iran and to re-enter the nuclear deal.
Russia: Trump had, at least, in his early days, attempted to break the ice with great rival Russia. However, the Democratic Party has consistently held that Russia and Putin influenced the US elections that led to Trump's victory, and a Biden administration is expected to put further squeeze on Russia on issues like Crimea annexation and Ukraine.
Middle East: Trump's administration held an unabashed pro-Israeli tilt, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, angering Palestinian leadership with what the latter called a unilateral 'Middle East peace plan', and refusing to condemn Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu's threats to invade West Bank. The Biden administration is expected to distance itself from the great Trump ally Saudi Arabia, and moderate (not completely dilute) the naked pro-Israeli tilt to warm bilateral relations with human rights preconditions.
China: From initial friendly overtures to public insults and a full-blown trade war, the US-China relations during the Trump era was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. Biden will be expected to continue with a hawkish stance, but the focus will shift from the economic side of the rivalry to a human rights one—a la Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.
India: This is expected to be the one point of complete convergence between Trump and Biden. Under Trump, as has been under successive US presidents since Bill Clinton, the bilateral relations have been on a steady uptick, peppered with moments of personal bonhomie between Trump and Modi. Biden has already placed himself as an enthusiastic supporter of the growing US-India relations. Geopolitically, the US counts on India as a reliable hedge in South Asia against China's growing clout and aggression. The two candidates are also well aware of the growing influence of Indian-Americans in key battleground states, and have placed big focus on canvassing support from the community.
Who is better for India—Trump or Biden?
Trump has said he is the closest friend India could hope for in the White House. But it is worthwhile remembering that Joe Biden has championed closer relations with India since the era of the civil nuclear deal. As Harvard University's Ronak Desai wrote in The Washington Post, in the immediate aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998, Biden was one of the few voices advocating dialogue with India. "He was among the first to call upon the Bush administration to unilaterally drop sanctions against India in 2001. Starting in 2005, he spearheaded efforts to secure overwhelming bipartisan congressional approval of Bush’s landmark nuclear agreement. As vice president, Biden was a mainspring of Obama’s foreign policy and helped ensure that India remained a top priority," Desai wrote.
While Biden has criticised some of the post-377 restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, his overall policy has been largely pro-India.
As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar put it, reported by the Hindustan Times: “Each president has developed on the legacy of the previous one when it comes to India. And if you follow the debates in the US now, you will find many differences between the competing candidates, but India is a common point. I actually believe that India has bipartisan, or in a sense non-partisan, support in American politics. Our footprint is very wide and so is our acceptability. Different sets of politicians who disagree on many things agree on India. And I think that is a very good place to be.”
Both the candidates have pulled all stops in wooing the desi vote. On Independence Day, Biden, in a first by any presidential candidate, came out with a policy document for Indian-Americans. "Indian-Americans of all backgrounds Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, and others have been subjected to bullying and xenophobic attacks and need now, more than ever, a reassurance that the US leaders in Washington will have their backs," Biden said. He asserted that, if elected, his administration will stand with New Delhi in confronting the threats it faces and called for strengthening the "bond" between India and the US. "If elected president," Biden said, "he will continue to believe this and also continue to stand with India against the threats it faces from its own region and along its borders."
Biden has also added some personal touches to his campaign, constantly speaking of the time he was elected as one of the youngest US senators in 1972. "One of the first letters that I received was from Mumbai, with the sender having the same last name as mine," he had said. The 'Biden from Mumbai' had congratulated Biden on his election as the senator from Delaware and told him that they were related to each other. The former vice president spoke about how he wanted to follow up on the letter and get in touch with the 'Biden from Mumbai', but it remains a wish unfulfilled nearly five decades later.
Trump will play on his close relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Aiming to woo the influential Indian-American voters, the Trump campaign released a first video commercial that has short clips from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches and US President Donald Trump's historic address in Ahmedabad. Modi and Trump addressed a huge crowd in Ahmedabad during the US president's visit to India in February this year. Trump was also accompanied by his wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and top brass of his administration on his trip to India.
"America enjoys a great relationship with India and our campaign enjoys great support from Indian-Americans!" Kimberly Guilfoyle, national chair of Trump Victory Finance Committee said in a tweet releasing the video commercial. The president's son Donald Trump Jr, who is leading the campaign and is well connected with the Indian-American community, also retweeted it as the commercial soon became viral on social media with over 66,000 views on Twitter in the first few hours.