A Biden-Harris Administration Would Mean a Harder Eye on Kashmir

The ease of the Modi-Trump relationship is likely to disappear under new scrutiny of human rights.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the U.S. Congress
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (right) and Vice President Joe Biden (left) in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 8, 2016. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Kamala Harris isn’t especially known for foreign policy. The first-term U.S. senator from California and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate doesn’t serve on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and never made international affairs her raison d’être in the Senate as others have. Yet. there is one issue on which Harris has been unusually outspoken: Kashmir.

On Aug. 5, 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Article 370, a core part of the India-Kashmir relationship that gave Kashmir a certain amount of autonomy relative to other Indian states—the ability to select a flag but also the ability to apply a different set of laws. The revocation of the article has been a longtime goal of Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but it was both a deeply unpopular move in Kashmir and a slap in the face to Pakistan, which disputes ownership of parts of the region. Immediately on the heels of the decision came a massive lockdown that included suspensions of communications, strict curfews, and the arrests of thousands of local political leaders—among them were multiple former chief ministers of Kashmir.

A month later, in September 2019, Harris was asked about the unrest in Kashmir during a campaign event for her own presidential bid. She stated that “we are all watching,” and she implicitly attacked the Modi government’s handling of the issue up to that point by calling out human rights abuses inflicted by India. This was a relative rarity among the pool of candidates at the time; other than Harris, those who made statements on the issue were Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But Harris’s ethnic heritage—her mother was an Indian immigrant to the United States—gave her stance more weight among Indian Americans. The Indian American community has had mixed political views in recent years—though many of them pulled the lever for Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they did so while backing much more nationalistic parties in India.

Harris also got involved in another U.S.-India scuffle over Kashmir a few months later. In December 2019, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, visited the United States for meetings with the administration along with congressional leaders. One of the meetings with House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel ended up being canceled, however, since the meeting would have included Pramila Jayapal, another Indian American lawmaker who holds very strong views about Kashmir.

In early December, Jayapal planned to introduce a resolution in the House of Representatives in which she urged the Indian government to end the internet restrictions within Kashmir, address mass imprisonment, and more. As a result of this resolution, Jaishankar decided he didn’t want to meet with Jayapal, but Engel wouldn’t allow the meeting without her presence and so it never happened. Harris decried Jaishankar’s actions and went out of her way to stand with Jayapal, further signifying a willingness to criticize the Indian government.

But while Harris and Jayapal draw more attention because of their ethnicity, a Biden administration is likely to take a tough stance if he wins the presidency this November—especially compared to the one under President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reportedly didn’t bring up Kashmir at all in an Aug. 6 phone call with Jaishankar. Former Vice President Biden himself has also been willing to criticize Indian political decisions. On Biden’s “Agenda for Muslim-American Communities,” Biden stated that the “Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir” and, further, that restrictions akin to the ones seen in the region weaken democracy.

Biden and Harris, if elected, will have to deal with a very different Modi government than President Obama did. Between 2014, when Modi became prime minister, and early 2017, when Obama’s presidency ended, the Modi government played down the Hindu nationalist angle that is the animating spirit of the BJP. The two leaders seemed to strike up a sort of friendship—and in response to Modi’s victory, Obama’s State Department lifted the visa restrictions placed on Modi by President George W. Bush’s State Department in response to the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

After Modi’s 2014 election, the two leaders met multiple times in India and the United States. Modi’s first priority wasn’t pursuing Hindu nationalist goals—it was increasing foreign investment, and this was a project Obama was happy to help with. Despite Modi’s opposition to foreign direct investment during his time as Gujarat chief minister, he sang a very different tune as prime minister—opening up new avenues for investment. As then-Ambassador to India Richard Verma pointed out in 2016, Indo-U.S. trade continued to shatter records—to that end, FDI in India in total from 2014 to 2016 went up around 500 percent.

Actions like this helped cement the relationship between Modi and Obama. The two leaders may not have had too much in common politically speaking, but they both saw the value of FDI and a closer U.S.-India relationship, and they were willing to work together to those ends developing something of a friendship along the way. Biden is unlikely to repeat that pattern.

Obama was careful to avoid direct criticism of the Indian government. In his 2015 speech at India’s Republic Day celebrations, he spoke about how “religion has been used to tap into those darker impulses as opposed to the light of God” and that “we have to guard against any efforts to divide ourselves along sectarian lines or any other lines” though the then-president was careful to not take direct shots at either Modi or the ruling BJP.

For Biden, that ship has long since sailed. Kashmir is not the only issue where Biden has raised concerns much more so than those ever raised by his former boss. Biden has also strongly come out against the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the National Register of Citizens—both projects of the Modi-led government that critics charge will make it easier to discriminate against and ultimately kick out Muslims from India.

Biden is clearly more willing to criticize allies than his old boss was. And that leaves open the question of the future of the Indian American vote. Traditionally, this highly educated group votes strongly Democratic—but they are also often Modi supporters. Modi has made no secret of his love for Trump, and the inverse is true as well—each hosted the other at massive rallies in Gujarat and Texas, respectively. However, the increasingly nationalistic policy tacks of Trump and the Republican Party make a political switch unlikely. A Biden administration may not turn a blind eye to Modi—but it’s also very likely to lift the Trumpian visa and immigration restrictions that hit Indian American lives directly.

Anik Joshi is a public policy professional in Washington D.C.

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