The Indian foreign policy establishment is not very interested in the outcome of this year’s presidential election in the United States. This in contrast to 2004 when it preferred George W. Bush or 2008, when the entire world was caught up in the yearlong election drama.
The reason is simple. India’s ruling center-left coalition appears to have reached a dead end and the foreign policy class is in the slumber. It should pay attention though. Barack Obama’s reelection could prove an annoyance to Indians if it is accompanied by a return of liberalism in American policy.
The Democratic president has so far conducted himself largely as a Republican in the mold of George H.W. Bush on the world stage. Indians find comfort in this conservative posture. They are wary of liberals who seek to use America’s position as the preeminent power to change the world.
They would never take this approach to China. Even the do-gooders recognize that there are limits to what they can accomplish. But with India, there are always issues to raise, ranging from Kashmir to human rights to the environment. This has been a trend among Democratic Party presidents whereas the Republicans tend to stand by India.
As early as 1919, Woodrow Wilson failed to live up to his promise to support Indian independence. Harry Truman internationalized the Kashmir dispute at India’s expense. John F. Kennedy was reluctant to intervene when China invaded Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh in 1962. Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t support India during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Bill Clinton wouldn’t involve himself in the 1999 Kargil War.
It was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who endorsed India’s bid for independence. Dwight D. Eisenhowever, another Republican, normalized relations with his 1958 visit to India. Ronald Reagan initiated technology cooperation and it was George W. Bush who signed the hallmark nuclear agreement of 2005.
There have been two exceptions to the rule. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was tempted to condition his support for Great Britain during the Second World War on Indian independence while Republican Richard Nixon menaced India during the Bangladesh Liberation War by dispatching an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal and allying himself with Pakistan.
Still, given this recent history, it’s important for India to always be skeptical when champions of liberal value such as Barack Obama occupy the White House and when the liberal establishment in the Democratic Party holds sway in the Congress and State Department.
Indian foreign policymakers need to understand that a Republican president would likely be far more beneficial to them. A Republican would more actively seek to counter China’s rise in Asia through a balance of power. This is what George W. Bush did during his eight years in office.
India is also preparing for elections. In 2014, if the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power, New Delhi could adopt a more assertive stance on the world stage and expect the United States to do the same. Specifically, the conservatives would like to see a more activist containment of China and the dismantling of Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure. A conservative administration in the United States would surely be more cooperative.