US presidential elections : Why does it matter to India

By Ekansh Ranjan


The Big, fat and now masked American elections

If you have ever been to an Indian wedding chances are high that this analogy might seem uncannily apt or utterly irrelevant.  In many respects, an arranged Indian marriage is one where relatives have their own opinions except the ones getting married whose wishes are overlooked. The US presidential elections are similar in their fanfare and political commentators around the world are giving their two cents. Yet, the US electorate appears to be have been neglected in their calculations.

Where should we really look? Why?

The constitutions of both the countries begin with, “We the people…” which isn’t just an assertion of the sovereignty but the celebration of the democratic way of life. Thus it seems a fallacy when political pundits argue what policies incumbent POTUS Donald Trump or his challenger Joe Biden will follow. Whosoever wins the election will be mirroring the wishes of the electorate and it is this set of stakeholders whom we should be up to speed with. When delving deeper, it is imperative to take stock of certain paradigm shifts in the minds of voters in the US. Events such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 leading to recessions, retrenchments and low wages coupled with lower quality of social security has made Americans question the logic of globalization and outsourcing. Xenophobia became the new black and immigrants became the scapegoat. People blamed the pro-liberal policies of the political elites for their miserly condition leading to the rise populist leaders and demagogues who tried to leverage the trust deficit.

These forces propelled Donald Trump to the office in 2016. Since assuming office, President Trump has one after another taken decisions that have set the clock back on the liberal and globalist US. As of today, America appears to be more insular and no more a leader of the free world.  Further, the most recent black swan event, COVID-19 pandemic has made proponents of liberal democracy jittery. The accentuation of these undercurrents due to the pandemic is no more just a possibility. The US and China are engaged in a bitter tussle over the origins of the virus, characterized by buck-passing and counter-allegations. As a consequence, the process of America receding from the world stage has only hastened. A case in point is the American retrenchment from various forums such as UNESCO, WHO and WTO. The prevailing infodemic has consumed America polity and remorsefully, the American people.

American elections and India’s world: More connected than ever?

The liberal world order as set up by the US has come under strain from within, not just because of the manipulation of the elections by Russian hackers, but also due to the deep-seated anxieties of the people. If the so called tea leaves are read correctly, people post-Covid are going to turn more insular, inward-looking, protectionist and much less interested in globalization. The implications will be epitomized in more restricted flow of “4 freedoms- goods, investment, technology and labour” and America shying away from its role of theupholder of the rules and norms it once established. It can be reasonably inferred that India will be worse off as perhaps the best periods of India’s growth has coincided with the US tending to an open world. As a result, plethora of sticking points have emerged such as the reduction of H1-B visas, our exclusion from generalized system of preferences (GSP), tariff war or resisting transfer of technology due to intellectual property rights (IPR) issues.

Though it may not portend the collapse of the post cold war era, yet, it does open a space for illiberal, authoritarian and revisionist powers such as Russia and China who can set up their alternate systems of global governance.  These systems might be way less inclusive and accommodative from India’s viewpoint which prefers reformed multilateralism. These parallel systems of global governance will generate more friction and causing the world to polarize. The multi-polar space will shrink, diminishing India’s independent voice at the global stage. India will have to make a choice between the two, which runs counter to India’s time-tested principle of strategic autonomy. Even though it may not identify with any particular side, a choice between embracing values of inclusiveness and rules based order, and unilateralism and exclusiveness would be ineluctable for India as it navigates through uncharted waters.

The new POTUS will already have his job cut out for him. He will need to ensure a course correction in the outlook of the ordinary Americans towards the world. Hence, the ‘spillover effect’ that this US Presidential election carries can strengthen or dent the credentials of democratic ethos and rules based world order. Therein, lies the true value of these elections for India.

Problems without passports: Keys to sustenance of humanity yet grossly overlooked

It is human condition to overlook the forest for the trees. In the pursuit of our tangible objectives we seldom overlook intangible elements that sustain life on earth. A perceptive girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg’s poignant questions should galvanize us into action. What if the world were to become warmer, more vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change and more susceptible to future pandemics while we dream of ‘eternal economic growth’?

Former UNSG Kofi Annan labeled problems that plague nations across borders as the problems without passports: pollution, climate change, poverty and now, pandemics. Humanity needs to act collectively to resolve them. Today, everyone looks up to the US because that’s the niche it had carved out for itself since the end of WW2. It had taken the lead in the formation of various forum of global governance. Yet, unilateral self interested actions have characterized US. Surely, these policies are never made in isolation and are a mirror of the ills prevailing in the society. Former President George H.W. Bush once said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. It seems that President Trump was certainly not the only one trying to put “America first” and above the interest of everyone else.

A new leaf in America’s playbook is discrediting the international institutions and depriving them of any meaningful say. India too has been a critic due to the structure of these forums which are not in sync with the realities of the 21stcentury. Yet our emphasis has been re-forming them and not deforming them. Concomitantly, the US leaving WHO as it doesn’t concur with allegations against the Chinese, smacks of bullying. Now, it’s a fact that the organization lacks accountability and proper mechanisms need to be set up. What the US doesn’t realize is that pulling out will create a vacuum and open the door for the revisionist powers to subvert these institutions. Not to mention, a pull out by the US and withholding its contributions will hobble the WHO and reduce its efficiency to carry out the humanitarian assistance operations.

Currently, climate change is a bigger threat to world peace than any other threat.  As per the Global Climate Risk Index, Indiahas one of the highest fatalities and the 2nd highest monetary losses associated with climate change. Thus climate change is one of the important issues facing India today. Yet, the US has unjustifiably tried to protect the unsustainable American lifestyle. They have discredited the principles of equity and historical responsibility in climate change negotiations. The US is unwilling to share technology, finance and expertise with developing states over issues such as IPR although US is stillone of the largest emitters of GHGs. Pandering to the wishes ofcorporations, climate negotiations are stalled as evident in the recent pull out by the US from the Paris climate deal. India believes that it needs the “carbon space” for it to grow its economy while the US should take the responsibility for the historical emissions. India values the bilateral relationship and the well-being of the world.

What’s in it for India ? 

In many respects one can find more similarities in what ails the American and the Indian society. For every incident of Racism in the US, incidents related to religious bigotry are not too uncommon in India. Further, for BLM (Black Lives Matter), there is CAA. Moreover, there are issues of class conflict in US and caste-ridden stereotypes here, hinting at heavily polarizedsocieties. Such issues tear into the social fabric. Thus, what’s pertinent is, shouldn’t the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies set a better template of resolution of such ills. They could learn valuable lessons from each other.

India is a civilizational state that has been well integrated to the world and the whole gamut of our cultural ethos is exemplified by our belief in ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’. Thus, any happening throughout the world affects India. The US elections are highly significant event as the POTUS will mould global events and processes in such a way that there are bound to be implications for us. More so, our interests shouldn’t be solely in whether the POTUS and his policies are propitious to our major strategic goals. A divided American polity will pander to its vote base and take decisions that might not be in the best interests of India. An America reneging on its climate commitments and thwarting global governance framework will do India no good even if our bilateral relations were to be on the ascent.

All in all, given the environs prevailing in the US currently, it’s more reasonable to place our optimism in “We the people…” of the American Constitution and to be in sync with paradigms prevailing among the voters in US. The new leader at the helm will have to fulfill the aspirations of the people and stem the tide of polarization and democratic back-sliding. Until then, the onus will be on India to devise a modus operandi to navigate through what look to be a more tumultuous period in America. Hopefully an awakened and progressive ‘general will’ shall emerge at the ballot. A more globally engaged US, with a leader who believes in globalization, would be more beneficial for not just India but the larger world.



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