The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat on October 23, 2016.
Yelling at babies, walking pneumonia, plagiarized speeches, email leaks…the 2016 U.S. election cycle has had more than its share of absurd controversies. It has also naturally piqued interest around the world, including in India, where the colourful candidacy of Donald Trump and strong views about Hillary Clinton have elicited a great deal of curiosity. Unlike with many U.S. allies or trade partners, India’s relations with the United States may not be significantly affected by the outcome. However, given that the election’s result could greatly alter the United States’ position in international affairs, it will – indirectly – have enormous implications for India’s future.
It is noteworthy that India has not featured prominently in the heated, and sometimes vaudevillian, electoral rhetoric of the past eighteen months. Trump’s criticism of Mexico, Japan, China, and NATO allies has dominated headlines, as has his apparent attraction to Russia. Meanwhile, much has been made of Clinton’s private email server and her Middle East policy during her tenure as Secretary of State.
Nevertheless, India has occasionally cropped up on the campaign trail, sometimes in unexpected ways. Trump mocked an Indian accent during one public appearance and his campaign has accused Clinton of receiving Indian funding in exchange for supporting the India-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement. He has spoken of India both with admiration – “India is doing great. Nobody talks about it.” – and with concern, as a country stealing American jobs. He has also made contradictory statements about high-skilled immigration to the United States, of which Indians are among the biggest beneficiaries.
For her part, Clinton has alleged that Trump’s enterprises have exported manufacturing jobs to, among other places, India. And yet she likely has the most exposure to India of any presidential candidate in history. She visited India as First Lady in 1995, was co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus, and dealt extensively with India as Secretary of State. Her closest foreign policy advisers are well-known in New Delhi, which means that her election would instil a sense of comfort and familiarity. Certain intrinsic differences would, of course, remain under her presidency, but from New Delhi’s point of view those differences are both understood and manageable.
Given the known positions of both candidates, the election outcome is unlikely to transform bilateral India-U.S. relations. In contrast to formal U.S. allies – such as NATO member states, Japan, and South Korea – India is not concerned about Trump abrogating a longstanding security guarantee. And India is outside the mega-regional trade agreements that are awaiting ratification or under negotiation – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In fact, commercial relations between India and the United States remain underwhelming, and with protectionist sentiments creeping in in both countries, the direct impact of the elections on bilateral trade is likely to be minimal.
Nonetheless, India should be paying close attention. The 2016 U.S. presidential election, more than any other in recent memory, will determine the United States’ position in the world. Trump has questioned the need for Washington to play the role of global security guarantor. His victory would undoubtedly accelerate America’s reversion to a ‘normal’ power. Given his personality, it would also inject a great deal of uncertainty over questions of American leadership. Trump’s election thus presents the prospect of Chinese preponderance in Asia far earlier than most would have anticipated. This would, in all certainty, force India to consider entering into closer security arrangements with other Asian powers, notably Japan. India would also have to contemplate a greater security role in the Indian Ocean, Middle East, and possibly Southeast Asia, given its large and growing interests in these regions. Indeed, a silver lining of a Trump presidency is that it might compel India to shake off some of its strategic stupor. A more active India with more diversified partnerships could even benefit commercially. As with Brexit, the blank slate presented by Trump’s presidency might enable India to come to terms with the art of the deal.
But for all these possibilities, stability and continuity are far preferable to uncertainty and volatility for a major emerging economy such as India – especially in these already uncertain and volatile times. Over the years, Clinton has made it clear that her natural strategic instincts are interventionist and her natural economic proclivities are pro-trade. Her attitudes have had to be tempered over the last year by Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and the general uptick in isolationist and protectionist sentiments in the United States. As president, she would remain constrained by both Congress and the left wing of her own party. Nonetheless, Clinton’s familiarity with India, her known positions on the Indo-Pacific – probably best captured in her 2011 Foreign Policy essay “America’s Pacific Century” – and India’s familiarity with her foreign policy team are reasons enough for India to be satisfied if, on November 8, she is elected U.S. president.