US elections: Footprint in South Asia

No match is perfect. However well intentioned an association is, it is bound to encounter grey areas. Geo-strategic compulsions and commonalities of democratic thinking have put India and US relations on the high road for sometime now. And irrespective of who takes the driver’s seat at the White House, there can only be a gain of momentum as we move forward together. Undoubtedly new milestones will be added, but the duo is also likely to hit some roadblocks.

Akrita Reyar No match is perfect. However well intentioned an association is, it is bound to encounter grey areas. Geo-strategic compulsions and commonalities of democratic thinking have put India and US relations on the high road for sometime now. And irrespective of who takes the driver’s seat at the White House, there can only be a gain of momentum as we move forward together. Undoubtedly new milestones will be added, but the duo is also likely to hit some roadblocks. More interesting still will be the tactic that the new President adopts in dealing with Pakistan, now an acknowledged epicenter of terror. US policy would have a large bearing on its failing economy, stressed democracy and pursuit of hardline Islamists. The approach, focus and personal style of functioning of the candidates would play a crucial role in steering foreign policy. From the look of it, the Democrat camp has a clear advantage. Barack Obama is more open to experiment and his Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden brings with him rich experience. He is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the 110th Congress, a position he has held in the past as well. Besides, some South Asian experts like Bruce Riedel are among Obama’s advisors. John McCain and party are more likely to toe the Bush line, albeit with a few cosmetic changes. Though McCain is gung-ho about India, and promises to come down hard on terror in Pakistan, his running mate Sarah Palin is a complete greenhorn. Having acquired a passport for the first time in her life in July 2007, she is busy figuring out basic geography these days. That she may improve in times to come can be our only hope; for who can forget the incumbent President knowing of “General” as the President of Pakistan, when he was quizzed during campaign trail in year 2000. Given the background, let us delve on some of the areas that will occupy the next President vis-à-vis South Asia in the next four years: On Strategic Ties Both Barack Obama and John McCain support broad based ties with India. Obama has admitted that “natural partner” India will be an important part of his foreign policy, while Republican campaign advisor Richard Burt says, “John McCain wants to deepen those roots between US and India.” Joe Biden has gone a step further and stated that by 2020 he dreams of India and the US as the closest countries in the world and that such a relationship would make the world a safer place. Earlier, he also admitted to his intention of pushing the nuclear deal in US Congress “like the devil”. Sarah Palin also recently met the Indian and Pakistani leadership on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and was apprised to the fact that Mr Zardari was tempted by her, while Dr Manmohan Singh was a former professor, who handed her a crash course on the region. On Nuke Deal and Non-Proliferation But there is more to this than meets the eye. The Republicans are firm supporters of a “no-strings” attached nuclear collaboration with India. The infamous “killer amendments” that raised hackles in New Delhi were actually the brain child of Obama and added to the Hyde Act at his behest. One of his amendments that got rejected was related to giving India the right to build strategic reserves for its imported nuke reactors. The Democrat leader has also slammed George Bush for allowing the nuclear risk in the region to go grave since 1998. His endeavour on regulation includes a proposal to expand the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) from its current focus of stopping illicit nuclear shipments to eradicating nuclear black markets, like the one created by AQ Khan and his network. This clearly would have a direct bearing on Pakistan and its nuclear command and control system. Obama has admitted that stringent nuclear non-proliferation measures have always been a cornerstone of Democrat history, and he is in no mood to change that. In case the Senator from Illinois does indeed come to power, as it looks likely, he would exert greater pressure on India to sign on the dotted line of the CTBT and NPT treaties. It is noteworthy that it was in fact another Democrat President Bill Clinton, who had prevailed on former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee to give a commitment to the effect in the UN General Assembly in September 1998 after conducting nuclear tests in May that year. John McCain in this regard will give India more space. The Republicans are satisfied with our assurances to a voluntary moratorium. Both camps are however sensible to the fact that energy needs of India would have to be met to counter China’s growth rate and that there is money to be made for American businesses in this. McCain was fulsome in his support to the Indo-US nuclear deal, as he welcomed its passage on every step of its way at the IAEA, NSG etc. He also censured Obama for introducing “poison pill” amendments that had potential to derail the pact. Explaining his thumbs up to the 123 Agreement, McCain had said, “Because the agreement will further involve India in the global non-proliferation regime, strengthen the ongoing transformation of US-India relations, and reduce India`s dependence on carbon-emitting energy sources, I supported it early on and without equivocation." He also hit out at Obama adding, "The same cannot be said of my opponent, who supported `poison pill` amendments on the Senate floor that would have had the effect of killing this important agreement." On Terror & Pakistan Obama feels Pakistan faces a Hobson’s choice on terror. He has unambiguously supported unilateral strikes by the US to get rid of al Qaeda and Taliban entrenched deep along the Pak-Afghan border. He minced no words when he declared that “if Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” This is toughest stance that any US government has taken on terror in Pakistan and would draw appreciation India. Obama has emphasized that the need to destroy terror camps is not just “in the US interest, or Afghanistan’s interest, but for the security of Pakistan”. He added that he would be telling the Pakistani leadership “how seriously we take these base camps”. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are also looking at improving the American intelligence apparatus by investing in its capacity to collect and analyze information, share leads with other agencies and carry out operations to annihilate terrorist operations and networks. McCain had backed the Bush policy to support Musharraf, but Obama feels that the Republicans have made a mistake by putting all their eggs in only one basket. The Democratic Presidential candidate would rather want to “reach out to the Pakistani people to build a lasting relationship, rather than look for temporary alliances with their government”. The statement shows Obama’s lack of confidence in the Pakistani establishment. He also feels that the fight against terror should not be used as a place to demand military aid. So while he co-sponsored a legislation for tripling non-military assistance to the Islamic Republic, he would also demand greater accountability for resources spared for the Army. From his statements it looks McCain is more likely to work through established, though sometimes colliding, leadership than embarking on unilateralism. “We need to help the Pakistani government go into Waziristan, where I visited, a very rough country, and -- and get the support of the people, and get them to work with us and turn against the cruel Taliban and others.” But McCain may continue the current US policy to strike within Pakistan without giving prior information to the authorities. “And by working and coordinating our efforts together, not threatening to attack them, but working with them, and where necessary use force, but talk softly, but carry a big stick.” Not only has the Obama line drawn fire for replicating the Bush act in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Republican Presidential candidate feels such strong arm tactics would only turn the tide of public opinion against the US. “When you announce that you`re going to launch an attack into another country, it`s pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us,” McCain countered. On Kashmir McCain’s take on Kashmir will be closer to what India would like - that of non-interference, similar somewhat to the current Republican presidency. His silence on the issue indicates the issue is not high on the agenda. India considers this as an internal affair, and one that can be sorted out bilaterally with Pakistan. Obama on the other hand has openly pronounced that Pakistan has tolerated and in some cases funded mujahideen in Kashmir because it has been helpful to them. He also promised to speak to Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani on the need “to have an honest conversation about how counterproductive that is”. Obama has marked out “Kashmir as a constant instigator of tensions in the subcontinent”. An area of concern could be the views of his advisor Bruce Riedel expressed in his latest book where he links the resolution of Kashmir and Palestine as being vital in the fight against terror at large and specifically in Pakistan. An officious Obama on Kashmir would prove to be nuisance for South Block. But it is early days yet and one cannot infer a direct interference immediately. When accosted about the role his administration will play in Indo-Pak negotiations, Obama spoke more of “central concerns of Pakistan vis-à-vis security posture towards India, when it comes up in context of Afghanistan”. This has welcome resonance for India, especially after the bombing of the Kabul High Commission. But he also hastened to add, “I believe the US should encourage the existing and ongoing dialogue between India and Pakistan aimed at resolving the dispute over Kashmir. The US should be a strong supporter of this process, one that will, if ultimately successful, have enormous benefits for both India and Pakistan, and the region as a whole.” Joe Biden too has said that the Democrats are open to involving in dialogue, but added quickly that the US would offer its good offices "not without consultation with India first", adding that the dispute between India and Pakistan "is not ours to solve". India can take comfort that a single rider has the weight to swing diplomacy. On Outsourcing McCain holds a more liberal view compared to Obama on the outsourcing issue. He continues to support tax cut for corporates, including some that are outsourcing jobs. The Democrat too feels that workers in the US should learn to compete with those in Bangalore or Beijing, as it is an irreversible feature of the world intricately interconnected. However, Obama plans to offer tax incentives to those companies which create jobs in the US. It follows that he would end tax breaks for those who ship US jobs overseas, thereby creating a disincentive. During a battle of words on the issue, Obama said, “John McCain strongly defended the Bush policy of lavishing tax cuts on corporations including those that ship American jobs overseas,” he said, referring to comments McCain made in a TV interview. “He made kind of a strange argument that the best way to stop companies from shipping jobs overseas is to give more tax cuts to companies that are shipping jobs overseas.” The McCain camp, which has not supported any clamps on outsourcing, called Obama’s interpretation of the remarks a distortion. On H1-B Visas While McCain feels that US workers should have the first chance for high-paying tech jobs, he has at the same time called for an increase in the number of H-1B foreign-worker visas. "I will continue to support H-1B visas, but, I’m telling you, the American people’s priority is, either rightly or wrongly, and we live in a democracy, is that we secure the borders first," McCain said during campaigning. Obama however has questioned the need for more H-1B visas, while calling for reform of immigration programmes, including ways for immigrants to become permanent residents, especially when this would help them join families who are already residents. "We can do better than that and go a long way toward meeting industry’s need for skilled workers with Americans. Until we have achieved that, I will support a temporary increase in the H-1B visa programme as a stopgap measure until we can reform our immigration system comprehensively," Obama clarified. While recognizing that highly skilled immigrants had contributed significantly to the domestic technology industry; Obama makes a distinction between a skills shortage, and a worker shortage saying it is the former that America lacked. He emphasized that proper training will enable Americans with the required skill sets, thus bridging the lacuna. Despite his conservative stand, Obama comes out as a clear favourite among Non-Resident Indians. According to the 2008 National Asian American Survey, the Indian diaspora in the US is backing Obama with a 53% endorsement compared to McCain’s 13%; but more than quarter of the people are still undecided compared to 8% of the general electorate. Besides the stated positions, there is also a need to read between the lines. While the Republican stance has recently been more unequivocal for an across the board support to India, Obama and friends are charier of India or any other country emerging too strong. Rebuking the Bush administration Joe Biden’s views are famous about the new administration unchaining “the real war”. The war to confront the emergence of Russia, China, India! The same sentiment can be detected in Obama’s exclaim after the launch of Chandrayaan-I. He noted that India’s Moon mission, which came close on heels of China’s, “reminded just how urgently the US must revitalize its space programme” if it intended to maintain its pole position. Outside the realm of politics, Obama maintains that all his life he has looked to Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration, “because he embodies the kind of transformational change that can be made when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things”. That is the reason that Gandhi’s portrait hangs in his Senate office. When Bill Clinton exited office, there was a general belief that India had lost an anchor in the US. A friend who had discovered compatibility between two countries who had in Cold War days found each other on different sides of the fence. Little did one know that George Bush would go a step further and firmly place the two giants as close allies. With the clock completing full circle, India would probably be among the few countries in the world which will feel his departure with any kind of remorse. The field is out there for either Obama or McCain to plough course. But whether India will “love” them enough, as Dr Manmohan Singh confessed about George Bush, it is too soon to tell.