Watching the Donald Trump presidency lurch through the final months of its first — and perhaps only — term in office, Indian strategic analysts are clinically reassessing the prospects for India-US relations in the event of a change of guard, come November. Opinion polls suggest that Joe Biden, the Democratic Party nominee, has a commanding lead over Trump; political commentators note that all that Biden needs to do in order to win in November is manage to stay alive — and not commit any of the gaffes he is prone to. In politics, however, it “ain’t over until it’s over”; and Trump more than anyone else epitomises the pursuit of politics as the ‘art of the impossible’. Back in 2016, he was the outsider who stunningly secured the Republican Party nomination on the strength of nothing more than bluster, and went on to win against a vastly more experienced Hillary Clinton.
In broad-sweep terms, India may seem a natural ‘strategic partner’ of the US, driven closer in recent decades by geopolitical developments, particularly China’s rise. Under Trump, of course, the relationship became more transactional, partly given Trump’s incapacity to see beyond the news cycle. Over time, however, both Republic and Democratic administrations have invested in the broader India-US relationship, although Democratic presidents tend to take the high moral ground on human rights issues. In recent years, the Democratic Party has lurched so far to the Left that it has accommodated strands of opinion that are ill-disposed to the Right-wing impulses of the Narendra Modi government. Modi’s embrace of Trump, literally and figuratively, could also complicate the plot for bilateral relations under a Biden presidency.
Yet, the options for Indian foreign policy strategists have never been more clear. Be it geopolitical or bilateral issues, India must exploit, in mercenary fashion, any congruence in worldviews. But where such congruence is hard to find, it must be able and willing to protect its own interests. And that is just as true whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat in the Oval Office.