No Game Change
The bipartisan consensus in Washington about expanding ties with India may be good for New Delhi, but it's turned the election into a snoozer.
Regardless of who wins Tuesday’s election, one thing is virtually certain: the trajectory of the U.S.-India relationship will remain unchanged.
India has hardly come up during the presidential campaign, but Republicans and Democrats alike share a broad consensus that it makes sense to deepen ties with the world’s largest democracy and (until recently) its second-fastest growing major economy. In New Delhi, strategic elites may pine for the days of George W. Bush, who bet big on India by championing a historic civil nuclear agreement in 2008. But nobody worries any more that an Obama victory might turn the clock back to Bill Clinton’s first term, when he put nonproliferation and the Kashmir dispute at the heart of his South Asia policy. President Obama’s backing for the nuclear deal, and his 2010 visit to India — where he declared that it was not merely an emerging power but had emerged — underscored an intention to build on his predecessors’ outreach to New Delhi.
Perhaps the best display of this bipartisan consensus came during the foreign policy debate on October 22, where neither candidate mentioned India even once. On one level, this was hardly surprising. India’s neither seen as a trouble spot like Pakistan, nor as an economic competitor remotely as worrying as China. The United States and India continue to talk about more things — from the South China Sea to Afghanistan to the modernization of India’s universities — than ever before. But the relationship is defined more by staid incrementalism, than by bold initiatives originating from either side.
Indeed, enthusiasm for India in Washington may wax or wane over the next four years, but arguably this will depend less on who occupies the White House than on who occupies the prime minister’s residence at 7 Race Course Road. Over the past two years, faced with a global slowdown and a lack of reforms, India’s once red-hot economy has cooled sharply. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the Indian economy will grow at 4.9 percent this year, half as fast as the 9.8 percent it managed at its peak in 2007. Simply put, India’s strategic importance in Asia — whether as a counterweight to China or a beacon of democracy and pluralism — depends on its ability to put its economy back on the rails. Both a President Romney and a President Obama will hope that recent reforms, which include an opening of India’s retail, insurance, and aviation sectors, take hold, and that India’s fractured politics doesn’t derail its economic prospects.
That said, a consensus on India policy doesn’t mean that other foreign policy differences between Obama and Romney don’t have the potential to affect U.S.-India relations. Many Indians fear a resurgence of radical Islam in the region should America withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan in 2014. Though his position is hardly crystal clear, of the two candidates, Romney appears to recognize more clearly the downsides of allowing America’s enemies to portray a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan as a defeat for the world’s sole superpower.
On Iran, India would prefer to see Tehran’s nuclear ambitions thwarted without a potentially destabilizing conflict. But there’s no clear consensus in New Delhi on whether Obama’s sanctions-led approach is superior to one that appears more willing to threaten the use of force. On the economic front, Romney appears less likely than Obama to take a hard-line on India’s multibillion-dollar outsourcing industry by, say, clamping down on visas for Indian high-tech workers.
Either way, from the point of view of relations between Delhi and Washington, this election is a snoozer. The 2000 and 2004 elections were dominated by George W. Bush, the most explicitly pro-Indian president in American history. The 2008 election revived Indian fears that the Democrats would revert to a hard line on India’s nuclear program and return to the Cold War policy of "hyphenating" India and Pakistan. This time around, neither hope nor fear is in the air, just business as usual.