India tries to shake off pro-Trump image in run-up to US election

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty

At a podium in Delhi on Tuesday, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, made a clear declaration of their country’s commitment to its alliance with India.

“The US will stand with India in its efforts to defend its sovereignty and its liberty,” Pompeo said, emphasising the importance of the US-India relationship in countering China’s “threats”.

Pompeo and Esper had travelled to Delhi this week to sign a deal for high-level intelligence sharing between the two countries. The timing – just a week before the US election – was taken by many observers to be politically strategic, giving the Trump administration a platform to increase its anti-China rhetoric and show off its close ties to India, playing to Indian-American voters.

Indian ministers, however, were at pains to emphasise that Pompeo and Esper were there for diplomatic, not political, purposes – it was nothing to do with the US election.

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It was not the first time Indian officials had voiced concern over appearing to be partisan in the US vote. Last month, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party told its overseas affiliates in the US not to campaign under a BJP banner – to do so could put “deep strategic relations” at risk.

The subtext was evident. With Joe Biden pulling ahead of Donald Trump in the polls, the BJP was worried its American wing had a pro-Trump image problem. “The effort in Delhi has always been to remain bipartisan and stay out of polarised US politics,” said Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian foreign secretary, national security adviser and diplomat. “But this has got more difficult in the last few years.”

Certainly, Trump’s public displays of camaraderie with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, have been a defining feature of US-India relations over the last four years. At the “Howdy Modi” rally, in Texas in September 2019, Trump hailed Modi as one of “America’s greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends”, while the two leaders tightly grasped each other’s hands. A similarly gushing rally was held for Trump when he visited India in March 2020.

However, as the election has approached, the emphasis in New Delhi has been on bipartisanship. Since 2000 – through Democrat and Republican presidents in the US, and BJP and Congress governments in India – the alliance has largely strengthened. Whether the occupier of the Oval Office in January is Biden or Trump, India is determined to keep it that way.

Harini Krishnan, right,  and her daughter Janani Krishnan-Jha cheering with a poster promoting Kamala Harris
Harini Krishnan, right, the co-California state director of South Asians for Biden, and her daughter Janani Krishnan-Jha, are among many Americans of south Asian heritage who vote Democrat. Photograph: Michael Short/Getty

The US has become one of India’s most valued allies on security and trade, and the alliance has helped India enhance its influence on the global stage. Meanwhile, the US state department on Monday declared the alliance “critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world”.

But for all the public bonhomie, the substance of the Modi-Trump relationship is questionable. The expected trade deal between the two countries has not materialised, and the US has come down hard on India for its large trade deficit. India promptly rejected Trump’s offer to “mediate” with Pakistan on Kashmir, and his description of India’s air as “filthy” in the presidential debate last week caused some consternation.

“Official New Delhi is somewhat scarred from the volatility of the Trump era,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “On the one had there is talk of this great partnership and a great bond between the two leaders. But then, as we saw in the first presidential debate, [there is] the willingness to throw India under the bus when it was convenient.”

Where the relationship has flourished under Trump is on issues of security and defence. Significant military and intelligence-sharing agreements have been signed, and India has been a significant purchaser of US weapons.

Trump’s anti-China stance has been particularly welcome to Indian officials, who have been sounding the alarm on China’s increase in power for years and are now engaged in an aggressive standoff with Chinese troops along their Himalayan border. Biden may take a more conciliatory and engaged approach with Beijing, in particular, on issues such as the climate emergency.

Nonetheless, the alliance between the US and India is one of the few issues on which Biden and Trump appear to agree. Trump has paid little heed to Modi’s increasingly authoritarian grip on India, where the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda has led to widespread persecution of its 200 million Muslims, and there is little to suggest that a Biden administration would be any more critical.

“India is one of the few countries for whom the outcome of the election is not an existential issue,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, director of the US initiative at the Observer Research Foundation. “However, what India would ideally like to see is a US administration taking a tougher position on China and Pakistan, while also giving India a pass on their relationship with Russia and Iran, which so far they have gotten away with.”

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The Trump campaign has attempted to use the president’s close relationship with Modi to appeal to Indian-American voters. Despite Indian-Americans making up only slightly more than 1% of the electorate, they are a highly mobilised, vocal and influential community, and traditionally vote Democrat. A recent report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that nearly three-quarters of registered Indian American voters intend to vote for Biden, compared with just 22% for Trump.

Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, is the first Indian-American to be on a presidential ticket: her mother emigrated from India to the US in 1958. However, she is unlikely to push Biden’s India agenda in any radical direction. One of her few public stances was a statement after the BJP government cracked down on Kashmir last August, which veered away from direct criticism.

Sylvia Mishra, a researcher on US and India relations, said Indian officials, more than rooting for a particular candidate in Washington, would be hoping for stability. “A Trump administration injects a lot of uncertainty in global affairs,” she said. “These past four years have given Indian diplomats a lot of headaches.”