Theatrics aside, Kamala Harris may help build on Trump's India policy

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Placards lining the road into Kamala Harris’s ancestral family village in southern India display her photograph with the caption “Singa Pennae,” or “Lioness.”

The phrase from a female power ballad in a popular Tamil-language movie released last year signalled the excitement in some parts of India over her nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Joe Biden.

Her family is confident that Harris, the first Black and Indian-American woman on a major presidential party ticket, will win over the rest of a country that has moved closer to the US thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s close ties with Donald Trump.

“Indians love drama, which explains President Trump’s popularity in India,” said Harris’s maternal uncle, Gopalan Balachandran, an academic based in New Delhi.

“But I am confident that she will be equally popular.”

Forged by theatrics, the Trump-Modi bond culminated in two giant stadium events in front of tens of thousands of their supporters – one in Houston last September and the other in Modi’s home state of Gujarat in February.

And while the warming relations have not yet resolved a trade spat, India has expanded arms purchases from the US and aligned with it more openly against China.

The Trump administration has made India a key part of its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, and backed Modi’s government following deadly clashes between Chinese and Indian troops along their disputed Himalayan border in June.

India is also a key part of the informal regional grouping to counter China known as the Quad, which also includes the US, Japan and Australia.

Still, the closer ties between the US and India are likely to persist in a Biden-Harris White House, said Amitabh Mattoo, a former member of India’s National Security Council Advisory Board.

“They may not roll out a red carpet or give bear hugs or talk about each other in narcissistic terms, but I don’t think there will be substantial shift in the importance that Washington has for India – that will remain,” said Mattoo, the author of more than a dozen books on international relations and a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Biden is “unlikely to do anything reckless in terms of changing posture as long as the China threat remains.”

A spokesman for the Biden-Harris campaign referred to Biden’s plan to place “a high priority on continuing to strengthen the US-India relationship.”

The campaign declined to comment further.

FRAYED NERVES

India-US ties have advanced under previous Democratic administrations.

In March 2000, President Bill Clinton looked past India’s nuclear tests to begin developing a stronger bilateral relationship.

Under the George W Bush administration, Biden helped pilot the civil nuclear cooperation with India in the Senate as chair of the foreign relations committee.

And though relations soured after the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in 2013, Barack Obama mended ties soon after Modi’s election.

The leaders sat for hours together in the rain as Obama become the first US president to be the official “chief guest” at India’s Republic Day parade.

Trump has hit India on trade while avoiding more controversial issues.

While in New Delhi in February, Trump said he’d raised the issue of religious freedom with Modi, but declined to comment on demonstrations against the government’s new citizenship law discriminating against Muslims.

He’s also offered to “mediate” between India and its rival Pakistan on Kashmir after Modi ended decades of autonomy in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Harris has expressed more concern about Modi’s actions, which has led to a lengthy crackdown in Kashmir and nationwide street protests earlier in the year over the citizenship law.

“We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world,” Harris said in September 2019 while on the campaign trail.

“We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

A Biden campaign policy paper outlining his outreach toward Muslim Americans criticised India over Kashmir and the citizenship law, while in a statement released earlier this month he said he would stand by India in confronting the threats it faces along its borders.

‘STRATEGIC RELATIONS’

Despite those issues, Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the US and India have “deep strategic relations” supported widely across party lines in both countries.

“As far as the BJP is concerned, we are naturally happy that someone with Indian ancestry is contesting the second topmost post in USA,” Vijay Chauthaiwale, chief of foreign affairs in the party who helped organise the Namaste Trump event in Gujarat in February, said in a text message.

Biden’s campaign has pledged reform the H-1B visa system and work to eliminate the country-quota for green cards, both issues that are important to the increasingly influential Indian American community.

And observers expect him to go easier on trade issues than Trump.

“While Harris’ Indian heritage will no doubt be a positive element in her approach to India, the more important bit is that the administration will not be as publicly harsh on trade and visas,” said Arun K Singh, a former Indian ambassador to the US.

Indians form about a fifth of 20 million Asian Americans and are often more educated and earn more than other immigrant groups, the Washington-based Pew Research Centre found.

About 65 per cent of Indian Americans were Democrats or leaned toward the Democrats, according to a 2014 Pew Research paper.

Politics was a frequent topic of discussion in the Harris family home in India, said Sarala Gopalan, Kamala’s aunt, who said the vice-presidential candidate is very close to her relatives.

Gopalan, one of the ‘Chitthis’ Harris referred to in her acceptance speech, said the village offered prayers at a local temple when her candidacy was announced.

“My father was working for the government, my mother was very much interested in politics,” Gopalan, 76, said.

She had politics “in her blood.”

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