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Beyond Borders: Indians and the U.S. Presidential Election

The World Policy blog is hosting a weekly series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles addressing Singapore's policy priorities, U.S.-Mexican relations, and similarities between the U.S. and Israeli political systems. Stay tuned for commentary from Canada, France, and more!

By Sukanya Roy

The lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election has captured the world's attention, and India is no exception – with good reason: India’s relationship with the United States stands to be altered drastically depending on which of the nominees, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, succeeds in November. 

The contrast between the candidates’ foreign policy backgrounds is stark, to say the least. Hillary Clinton is widely recognized as a “friend to India” and someone who “will take U.S.-India relations to a new level,” says Mumbai-based activist Ravi Krishnani. The former secretary of state’s track record provides further evidence that a Clinton presidency would bode well for U.S.-India relations: in addition to having helped create a Senate caucus focused on India in 2004, she wrote in a 2011 op-ed that “the United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future,” citing regional security, trade integration, and scientific development as areas which stood to benefit from increased dialogue between the two nations. 

It’s not unreasonable to assume that Clinton’s foreign policy could be a continuation of the agendas she pursued as secretary of state – most notably, the Obama administration’s pivot towards Asia, which was mirrored by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s revision of the country’s “Look East” policy to a more dynamic set of initiatives to “Act East.” For all that it may have contributed to her unfavorable ratings among some Americans, Clinton’s status as a “Washington insider” also means the Indian foreign policy establishment trusts that a Clinton presidency “will mean better economic and strategic ties with the country,” Krishnani says.

This is not to suggest that support for Clinton has been unequivocal among Indian citizens. A celebration last month of Donald Trump’s birthday hosted by right-wing organization Hindu Sena, complete with cake and streamers, lauded the Republican presidential nominee for his perceived toughness on terrorism, a sentiment that has also underscored much of his support at home. “In India we have a different looking right wing,” explains Indian Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy, “but one which does have some values in common with the Trump campaign.” 

Just as in the United States, these purported values have served as little more than a smokescreen for Islamophobia in practice. As disturbing as Trump’s calls for the surveillance of and restrictions on the immigration of Muslims may be, they carry a unique weight in India, where Muslims – who accounted for 13.4 percent of the population in the most recent census – have been the targets of similar rhetoric in tandem with the rise of an increasingly vocal Hindu nationalist movement. The Hindu Sena, which claimed to support Trump on the grounds that he would “save humanity from Islam and Islamic terror,” is just one example within a trend whose growth poses an uneasy threat to pluralism in both countries.

Trump himself has been relatively quiet on the subject of India. Save for having impersonated an Indian call center worker during one of his speeches, the Republican nominee has directed the majority of his bombast at other regional powers, particularly China. His overall lack of political experience, with his prior engagement in India limited to the construction of a Trump Tower Mumbai, renders his potential interactions with the country unpredictable to some degree. However, if his blatant disregard for the conventional wisdom of foreign policy thus far is any indication, the U.S.’s political and economic relationships with India could both deteriorate under his command. Trump’s protectionism is cause for concern among proponents of the economic statecraft that has strengthened ties between the two countries. What’s more, the isolationist rhetoric of the Trump campaign has proved as alarming to Indians as it has to many Americans. Trump’s anti-immigration stance “means that he isn’t winning any friends in the Indian American population,” Krishnani adds, referring to the sizable population of both Indians and Americans of Indian descent who call the United States home. 

According to a Migration Policy Institute report, Indian citizens today make up the greatest proportion of those receiving H-1B visas, meant to allow skilled workers to temporarily live in the United States. Indian students also make up the second-highest number of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions by nationality. A Trump administration, if it followed through on his campaign’s repeated promises to implement mass barriers to immigration, could render it even more difficult for Indians aspiring to work or study in the United States to realize their goals. 

In recent years, India has pursued an agenda of bilateral collaboration with the United States on issues ranging from the Paris climate agreements to civil nuclear cooperation. The U.S.-India relationship has even managed to transcend partisan politics in some cases; Modi, during his visit to the U.S. last month, was received with admiration by both Democrats and Republicans. His address to Congress focused in equal parts on his vision for the development of India and his hope that the country’s partnership with the United States could be leveraged for good. This balancing act between national interests and international order has been a cornerstone of the U.S.-India relationship in the 21st century, but the results of the 2016 presidential elections are poised to rewrite the rules entirely.

Of course, it’s also true that attempting to paint either the U.S. or India as monoliths does both countries a disservice. Nundy adds, “You can no longer look at the world through the lens of how a particular candidate will relate to your own country. The world is too interconnected for that.” 

But she’s willing to make an exception for the damage a Donald Trump presidency could do: the xenophobia and racism that his campaign has relied upon so far only prove that a Trump win in November “will not be good for the world, and will not be good for India.” 

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Sukanya Roy is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Narendra Modi Official]

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