Despite Donald Trump and India’s coming elections, barring unforeseen developments, no one is likely to rock the ties between India and the US
When the newly-elected United States Congress meets to swear in new members under the towering Capitol dome on January 3, 2019, missing among them will be the most important proponent of India-US relations in the current, outgoing 115th Congress, and its predecessor, the 114th Congress.
India invested heavily in Paul Ryan, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who is next in the line of succession to the White House, should the US President and the Vice President both become incapacitated or die in office. Only 48-years-old, India has been assiduously cultivating Ryan since 1999 on the calculation that one day he will be America’s President. He may yet be in the White House one day since age is on his side.
Ryan, in turn, invested heavily in India: the Sikh community in Wisconsin’s 1st district — his constituency — salvaged his political career in 2012 after a mass shooter killed six people in a gurudwara there and wounded four others. By Ryan’s own admission, he would not have been chosen as the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, had it not been for the large Wisconsin Sikh community’s subsequent support for him.
Buffeted by US President Donald Trump’s unpopularity — which cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives in the November mid-term election — Ryan announced early, in April itself, that he would not seek re-election to Congress. It was an astute political decision. However, as a result, India-US relations may not have as much of a smooth passage on Capitol Hill in the next two years as they would have had if Ryan had been Speaker.
India’s biggest asset in dealings with America has been the twin chambers of Congress: the House and the Senate. The Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans is the biggest on Capitol Hill. It is even bigger than the Israel Allies Caucus, which is saying much in the American political context. One-third of US senators are members of the Senate India Caucus. The India-US nuclear deal would not have come about if it were not for the untiring efforts of members of the two caucuses, especially the House caucus. The credit for many other landmarks — including the repeal of US sanctions following India’s 1998 nuclear tests — should go to caucus members.
With an erratic and capricious Trump in the White House for two more years, influencing the Congress has become more important for India than at any time in the last 20 years since Pokhran II created serious fissures in bilateral relations.
The Trump administration’s policies and attitudes towards India will also depend on how — rather than ‘if’ — the President fills vacancies in his administration which are critical to India policy. These vacancies, ranging from assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia — who acts as point person for India — to several others in the Office of India Affairs in the US state department, have remained unfilled throughout Trump’s term in office.
This is also true of other departments that impact US policies towards India. Consequently, India policy is now decided virtually single-handedly by Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, whose hands-on knowledge of the Indian subcontinent from her days in the Central Intelligence Agency, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the state department is, of course, exhaustive.
The US is known for its inter-agency dialogues where policies are made after extensive brainstorming. A situation where one person virtually makes policy is unprecedented in America as far as anyone can remember. However, Curtis understands India and has empathy for what India stands for. If she alone continues to decide India policy, New Delhi can expect to be protected from the vagaries that have characterised Trump’s actions and attitudes towards many other countries, including key allies of America.
Since coming to power, Trump’s interest in India has been unifocal, with wholesale emphasis on trade and commerce being conducted in America’s favour. With the House of Representatives under Democratic control, the Congress will attempt to balance this and sway America away in 2019 from pressuring India solely on trade. The downside of Democratic ascendancy on Capitol Hill will be greater demands on New Delhi to accommodate civil society, especially human rights advocates and scrutiny of religious freedom.
Few countries enjoy bipartisan support in Washington of the kind India has benefited from. So despite Trump, despite India’s coming elections, barring unforeseen developments, no one is likely to rock the boat of India-US bonhomie in the new year.
KP Nayar is a former foreign correspondent who reported from Washington for 15 years. Views are personalFor more Opinion pieces, click here.