December 20, 2007

Their India meter

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on December 20, 2007.

Recent developments in US-India relations will make next year’s US presidential election all the more important for Indians. In particular, the next US president’s policies on economic and nuclear matters, as well as his or her broader strategic vision, will impact India enormously. So how are the presidential candidates faring? Based on their statements, publications and actions, how have they positioned themselves on India?

On January 3, the state of Iowa will hold caucuses marking the first electoral test for US presidential candidates. By February 5, about half of the 50 states will have held their caucuses or primary elections, quite likely determining the Democrat and Republican parties’ candidates to contest the polls in November.

The presidential nomination process has received some jolts in recent weeks. On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton has seen her rival Barack Obama catch up with her in the polls, particularly in key states with early votes. Former Senator John Edwards is trailing at a distant third.

Among Republicans, the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, has catapulted to the lead in Iowa, and is in a healthy second place nationally. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani still leads national polls among Republicans, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney leads in New Hampshire and averages a close second to Huckabee in Iowa. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, previously a frontrunner, has seen his popularity plummet to only 13 per cent nationally, behind Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney.

On India, Hillary Clinton has been extremely cautious in her statements, despite being co-chair of the Senate India caucus. While she has written that India needs “an augmented voice in regional and international institutions, such as the UN”, she has avoided explicitly saying that India deserves a permanent seat on the Security Council. On economic matters, she is seen as more favourable towards outsourcing than her main Democratic rivals. She has also advocated that the US work with India, Australia and Japan on “issues of mutual concern, including combating terrorism, cooperating on global climate control, protecting global energy supplies, and deepening global economic development”. On nuclear matters, Clinton has promised to encourage the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 2009. She also voted in favour of the Hyde Act last year, which enabled civilian nuclear commerce with India.

Obama has also promised to pursue the ratification of the CTBT as well as a “verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material” to, as he wrote, “lock down existing nuclear stockpiles”. He is among the few candidates to focus on a solution to Kashmir, saying he would encourage dialogue between India and Pakistan. While Obama did vote in favour of the Hyde Act, the combination of policies that he has promised to pursue — including India-Pakistan hyphenation, American interference in pursuing a solution to the Kashmir crisis, a tougher line on outsourcing, and strong non-proliferation policies — does not bode well for US-India relations.

Though Edwards has described India as a “natural ally” with strong relations being “one of [his] highest priorities”, he remains arguably the most populist and protectionist of the leading candidates in economic matters. He is also among the few candidates to specifically address the US-India nuclear agreement and an Indian seat on the UNSC. “We must... strengthen our relationship [with India] using both national and international tools: reforming the UN so that there is a place for India on the Security Council and working with India to help it achieve a credible and transparent plan to permanently separate its civilian and military nuclear programmes”, Edwards wrote in Foreign Affairs.

On the Republican side, Giuliani is likely to provide the greatest continuity in foreign policy with the Bush administration. “US cooperation with India on issues ranging from intelligence to naval patrols and civil nuclear power will serve as a pillar of security and prosperity in South Asia,” he wrote recently.

Romney, a former venture capitalist, has spoken the least about India. He has defended outsourcing, and it is likely that Romney will be among the least protectionist of the major presidential candidates. “It’s tempting to want to protect our markets and stay closed”, he said as Massachusetts governor in 2005, “but at some point it all comes crashing down and you’re hopelessly left behind”.

Among the leading candidates, Huckabee is perhaps the least experienced in foreign policy matters. His recent article in Foreign Affairs was scathing towards Pakistan, but he added, “We must use our friendly ties with India to encourage and help it improve its relationship with Pakistan and to push for increased trade and cooperation between the two countries, all to bring greater stability to the South Asian region”. Huckabee has added India to a list of countries who, he believes, should put increased economic pressure on Iran. “These countries have been far more interested in pursuing profit than preventing proliferation”, he wrote. “They must realise that if the United States does end up taking military action, they will bear some responsibility for having failed to maximise peaceful options”.

McCain is the only major presidential candidate to openly back India’s inclusion as a full member of the G8. He believes India deserves a seat at that table at the expense of Russia. Like most of his Republican rivals, he is dismissive of the dangers of outsourcing: “Some Americans see globalisation and the rise of economic giants such as China and India as a threat”, he wrote. “But we should continue to promote free trade... vital to American prosperity”.

Mostly, India has not been a central issue in the presidential race. This may not be bad news. Countries that are the subject of debate tend to be so for the wrong reasons. This year, the ‘problem countries’ include Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and China.

Also the vaguely articulated positions of most presidential candidates on India may yet change dramatically. Some may remember that George W. Bush — the president who has done more than any of his predecessors to de-hyphenate India and Pakistan and exempt India from the nuclear order — could not correctly name India’s PM when asked to do so as a candidate eight years ago.