November 30, 2007

Presidential candidates, hyphens and India

This article originally appeared in India Abroad on November 30, 2007.


American presidential elections are usually scrutinized almost as carefully outside the United States as they are within the country. The otherwise unusual 2008 election will be no different. It will have unprecedented importance, however, to both the increasingly large and affluent Indian-American community and to India, given recent developments in the relations between the two countries.

For many members of the Indian-American community, key issues in choosing candidates include more relaxed legal immigration policies and cultural sensitivities toward ethnic Indians. Democratic candidate Senator Joe Biden’s statement in 2006 that ‘you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent’ ruffled Indian-American feathers, as did the Barack Obama campaign’s now infamous memo caricaturing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as a senator from Punjab. To New Delhi, however, business friendly policies - particularly regarding outsourcing - and recognition of India’s role and position on the global stage are of overriding importance.

The differing priorities between Indians and Indian-Americans have led to some peculiar political dynamics. Last year, Virginia Senator George Allen, an outspoken proponent of India and a political backer of the US-India nuclear agreement, failed to win his re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Jim Webb, a critic of outsourcing, after directing a seemingly racist epithet – ‘macaca’ - at an Indian-American and earning the ire of the Indian-American community.

This year’s presidential campaign provides some similar political enigmas. For the most part, Indian Americans have thrown their financial weight behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, who despite being a co-chair of the Senate’s India Caucus, has been cautious and non-committal in her generally pro-Indian public statements. Hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal has led efforts to gain campaign funds for Clinton’s presidential bid, organizing a major fundraiser for her in June this year. Clinton has also taken the time to specifically court alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the seven elite Indian engineering universities.

But many other candidates have gone out of their way to sing India’s praises, including Biden, Senator John McCain, and former Senator John Edwards. ‘With its great history, tremendous people, and rich culture, India has truly overwhelming potential,’ Edwards recently wrote, also describing India as a ‘natural ally’ and strong relations as ‘one of [his] highest priorities.’ Biden waxed poetic on India during the legislative process which culminated in the Hyde Act, the enabling legislation for the U.S.-India nuclear agreement. McCain quoted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in describing liberal democracy as ‘the natural order of social and political organization in today’s world.’

Some candidates have openly supported the idea of giving India a greater, and more formal position in the global geopolitical hierarchy. Clinton and Edwards have argued in favor of giving India an augmented voice in the United Nations, although Clinton has shied away from clearly declaring that India deserves a place on the Security Council. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson – a distant fourth in the race for the democratic nomination behind Clinton, Obama and Edwards – has backed India’s inclusion as a full member of the G8, as has McCain, who has written that Brazil and India deserve seats at that table at the expense of Russia.

McCain, Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani have called for increased defence cooperation between the U.S. and India, and all three have also emphasized the potential for better economic ties. Of the nine candidates who were serving members of Congress last year, seven - Clinton, Obama, Biden, McCain, Senator Christopher Dodd, Representative Tom Tancredo and Representative Duncan Hunter - voted in favor of the Hyde Act, while Giuliani has mentioned civil nuclear power as a potential area for further U.S.-India cooperation. Edwards has also expressed measured approval of the nuclear agreement. ‘I am generally supportive,’ he told India Abroad in 2005, ‘but — and it's an important ‘but’ — it's very critical, particularly given the show of good faith, it’s very critical that both sides meet their responsibilities and obligations.’

Outsourcing remains a major concern for many domestic constituents and has been either defended or criticized by most Presidential hopefuls. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a former venture capitalist, has labeled outsourcing a problem, but also defended it as a necessary aspect of an increasingly globalized world. ‘I'm not happy exporting jobs,’ he said as Massachusetts governor in 2005, ‘but we must move ahead in technology and patents. I don’t like losing any jobs but we’ll see new opportunities created selling products there…it's tempting to want to protect our markets and stay closed. But at some point it all comes crashing down and you're hopelessly left behind. Then you are Russia.’

McCain has been similarly dismissive of the dangers of outsourcing. ‘Some Americans see globalization and the rise of economic giants such as China and India as a threat,’ he recently wrote. ‘We should reform our job training and education programs to more effectively help displaced American workers find new jobs that take advantage of trade and innovation. But we should continue to promote free trade, as it is vital to American prosperity.’

Clinton’s perceived leniency toward outsourcing companies provoked the Obama campaign’s critical memo. Leading Democrats, while not mentioning India in particular, have often been scathing of outsourcing in their public statements, particularly Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Obama.

What may perhaps come as the greatest surprise to many Indians is the degree to which their country has been mentioned by key Democratic candidates as a potential cooperator in climate control and in energy security. Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson and Biden have all specifically mentioned cooperation with India on these issues, as have some Republican candidates, such as former Senator Fred Thompson.

The Presidential hopefuls who have been most critical of India are all fringe candidates. Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich voted against U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation and co-sponsored a bill in July ‘expressing the sense of the Congress that the United States should address the ongoing problem of untouchability in India.’ His Republican colleague Ron Paul, a self-proclaimed libertarian, was the only other candidate to vote against the Hyde Act. Tom Tancredo, who has run primarily as an anti-immigration candidate, co-sponsored the untouchable bill, while Duncan Hunter has expressed concern about the outsourcing of jobs to India.

Trial by Hyphenation

Historically, Indians have been sensitive to India’s so-called hyphenation with Pakistan in American foreign policy, an attitude that has more recently been passed over in favor of hyphenation with China. Budding presidential candidates frequently mention India in the same context as other nations, a tendency that, to some degree, is more useful in gauging their attitudes toward India than the rather vague and guarded statements they utter in public.

Clinton, for example, has lumped India with the US, Japan and Australia, calling on the countries to work together ‘on issues of mutual concern, including combating terrorism, cooperating on global climate control, protecting global energy supplies, and deepening global economic development.’ She has also written that India, along with China, should be involved in ‘international ecological resource issues.’

Obama has hyphenated India with Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa, as newly emergent nations with whom the United States must collaborate on ‘pressing global issues.’ He has added India to the list of major polluters, along with the US, the European Union, China and Russia. Obama has also been the only major candidate to mention a settlement to Kashmir as a part of his/her foreign policy agenda, perhaps inadvertently harking back to an older paradigm for US policy toward the region. ‘I will encourage dialogue between Pakistan and India to work toward resolving their dispute over Kashmir and between Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their historic differences and develop the Pashtun border region,’ he wrote earlier this year. ‘If Pakistan can look toward the east with greater confidence, it will be less likely to believe that its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban.’

Edwards, while glowing in his descriptions of India as ‘one of the world’s richest treasures,’ has also grouped it with China and Russia as a country that ‘will test US leadership.’

Finally, McCain has grouped India with Brazil as a leading market democracy that deserves membership to the G8, with China as an economic competitor, and with Indonesia as a potential economic partner for the US. He has hyphenated India with other democratic powers in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘I will seek to institutionalize the new quadrilateral security partnership among the major Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States,’ he wrote.

For the most part, presidential candidates have focused their foreign policy agendas on Iraq and the so-called War on Terror. Many leading Democrats, for example, have promised a US troop withdrawal from Iraq, while others have tried to focus on the ‘real war’ in Afghanistan. Some have advocated military intervention in Iran, while others are proposing more aggressive diplomatic initiatives. India, by and large, remains a side note.

It is therefore not surprising that several candidates, including some leading ones, have failed to articulate any clear stance vis-à-vis India. On the Democratic side, Dodd and former Alaska governor Mike Gravel have not outlined any clear positions on India, although Dodd did vote in favor of the Hyde Act. Among Republicans, Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee but better known to most Americans as an actor on the popular television show Law & Order, has few discernable views on India other than a bizarre diatribe against Mahatma Gandhi on a radio show in March. Leading Republican Romney failed to mention India in a five thousand word foreign policy manifesto in the magazine Foreign Affairs, while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a rising contender, has not articulated a clear policy toward India either.

This may not be bad news for India. Countries that are the subject of fierce debate during elections are usually discussed for being problems and rhetoric concerning them tends to be populist-oriented. This campaign season is no different: center stage appears to have been occupied by Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and China.

Ultimately, a Presidential candidate’s positioning on such an issue may have no bearing whatsoever on his or her policies as President. The next US president may have to deal with New Delhi in concluding the US-India nuclear agreement, finding a breakthrough in the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks, helping to stabilize both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and overcoming anti-American strongholds within India’s political structure. While important, the current ill-defined positions of most Presidential candidates on policy toward India may be altered dramatically by unforeseen developments.

History has shown this to be the case. The seemingly pro-India Jimmy Carter took a tough line on India’s nuclear weapons program. Bill Clinton’s immense personal enthusiasm for India, revealed in his diplomatic intervention in India’s favor during the Kargil War and his successful 2000 visit, was tempered by India’s decision to conduct nuclear tests in 1998. Some may also remember that George W. Bush, the president who has done more to ‘de-hyphen’ India’s relations with Pakistan and grant it an exemption from the global nuclear order than any of his predecessors, could not correctly name India’s prime minister when asked on the campaign trail eight years ago.