Election 2020

What the U.S. Elections Mean for India

Would Biden and Modi get along? While much is made of leaders’ personal chemistry, the larger trend is that the world’s two biggest democracies are growing closer.

By Ravi Agrawal, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

A motorist rides past a poster of U.S. Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at her ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram, Tamil Nadu, India, on Nov. 3.
A motorist rides past a poster of U.S. Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at her ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram, Tamil Nadu, India, on Nov. 3. ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, surveys have shown that people around the world have little confidence in his foreign policy. In January, for example, a Pew Research Center survey found that only 13 percent of adults in Germany and 8 percent in Mexico had faith that Trump would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

India is one of the few countries—including Israel, the Philippines, and Poland—where a majority of people surveyed expressed confidence in Trump. In India’s case, 56 percent said they trusted Trump. What does that mean for a potential Biden presidency?

There are several possible reasons why Indians warmed to Trump. For one, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to build a public rapport with the U.S. president, with high-profile joint events in Houston and in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Second, policies such as Trump’s travel ban may have found a sympathetic audience in Modi’s India. And third, Trump’s hawkish stance on China gave renewed impetus to the rationale for expanding U.S.-Indian ties on defense and intelligence sharing.

What might change under a Biden administration? Not too much. For all the hype around Modi’s supposed chemistry with Trump, the media said similar things about Modi’s relationship with former President Barack Obama. In other words, Modi has shown he can build relations with both Republican and Democratic leaders.

More substantively, analysts place perhaps too much emphasis on the personal chemistry between leaders. The broader trend remains that the U.S.-Indian relationship has progressed—in defense, intelligence-sharing, trade, and people-to-people ties—over the past two decades under leaders of all stripes. India is one of the few foreign-policy issues with bipartisan agreement in Washington.

It won’t all be smooth sailing under Biden. Salvatore Babones writes in Foreign Policy that New Delhi should be wary of how Kamala Harris might be tougher on India as vice president, putting human rights at the center of her approach. That may be the case, but I think the relationship between the two countries is robust enough to adapt. After all, Obama criticized Hindu majoritarianism when he visited India in 2015. Ultimately, the United States and India will find common cause in their hardening stances against China.

Outside of India, a Biden presidency won’t change much with regard to U.S. policies in other South Asian countries. As Ali Latifi wrote in Foreign Policy last week, Afghans know that the die is already cast for them: Biden is likely to continue the withdrawal of U.S. troops that accelerated under Trump’s presidency.

What about Pakistan and Bangladesh? The two countries are among the top five countries with the most Muslims in the world, and for that reason may find it easier to avoid dealing with Trump. And Islamabad will no doubt remember that Biden helped negotiate $1.5 billion in military aid to Pakistan in 2008, an effort for which he was awarded the Hilal-e-Pakistan, the country’s second-highest civilian honor.

Indian Americans in the U.S. election. I’d be remiss to ignore two more things about the U.S. elections relevant to South Asians, and Indians in particular. First, Harris is now poised to become the country’s first female vice president, first Black vice president, and first vice president of Indian descent. It’s a huge milestone for the Indian American community, which comprises more than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Several other Indian Americans won their races for House seats. Democrats Pramila Jayapal, Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Ro Khanna will return to the House for another term. But several other candidates failed, including Sri Preston Kulkarni, who ran for a House seat from Texas, and Sara Gideon, who failed in her bid to win a Senate seat in Maine.

Indian Americans were expected to play a larger role in this election. Once demographic data is released, we’ll come back to explore the impact they had.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports