Every four years, psephologists and political junkies the world over tune in to observe the United States exercise democracy in its presidential elections. The world’s largest economy and most powerful military understandably attracts much attention as other countries calculate the impact the victory of either candidate would have on their country. India is no different, but the enthusiasm for Republicans seem to be on the rise in the South Asian country. Yet is this change of heart warranted?

While Indians who are interested in the American political process enough to side with one candidate or another may feel otherwise, the Government of India (GoI) can afford a disinterested position regarding the domestic plank of either the Republicans or the Democrats. Philosophically compelling as they are, issues like Roe v. Wade, the teaching of creationism in biology classes in school, or the display of the Decalogue in government buildings does not affect India’s relations with the United States and are the internal affairs of a foreign power. The key issues Americans are concerned about in the 2012 elections are somewhat irrelevant to India. Thus, an Indian preference for one candidate over the other must be based solely on issues of mutual profit.

The George W. Bush White House was a complete surprise for New Delhi. Breaking from the Republican tradition of berating India for its nuclear programme, recalcitrance over Kashmir, or its questionable non-alignment policy, Bush extended a hand of friendship to “the world’s largest democracy.” Reversing four decades of nuclear non-proliferation policy, Washington offered India access to international commerce, even if de jure recognition of India’s nuclear status was withheld. Momentous though the nuclear deal was, it had been preceded by the setting up of a High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) as part of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), aimed to facilitate technology transfer and trade in space technology, ballistic missile defence (BMD), civilian nuclear technology, and trade in dual use items. Joint military exercises between the two countries increased dramatically and India placed orders for US military hardware after decades of ignoring the US market.

The rapidity of the thaw in relations between the United States and India set very high expectations which would be hard for any future administration in either country to match. These measures earned Bush the second highest approval rating in the world (behind the Philippines) from India when they were at their lowest ebb in his own country. It must be remembered, however, that this sudden fondness for Republicans in India is only as old as Bush’s  presidency. American heroes until then had been the likes of Chester Bowles and John Kennedy, not Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. With no big ticket treaties expected and a lot of legal intricacies still left to be worked out to actualise the Bush vision for India, it remains to be seen how much India holds Republicans in esteem as the bilateral relationship between the United States and India returns to a more normal pace.

There is, also, a perception that US-India relations have slipped under Barack Obama’s term in the White House. From India’s perspective, the United States has not delivered on its promise to cajole greater cooperation out of Pakistan on cross-border terrorism and has mired the actualisation of Bush era policies in legalese, from CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) and the LSA (Logistics Support Agreement) to BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation) and the EUMA (End User Monitoring Agreement). While these are indeed onerous encumbrances on a socially sensitive state like India, it must also be noted that these are not India-specific treaties – the US enters into such treaties with all its military clients. Furthermore, neither a Republican administration nor a Democratic one would be able to bypass US laws to favour India, who is, for all intents and purposes, still on the fence when it comes to issues of mutual security.

From the US perspective, India has disappointed tremendously on a host of issues, ranging from New Delhi’s stance on nuclear civil liability, the awarding of the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) contract to France’s Dassault, Iran, Libya, Syria,  and a greater role in Afghanistan. Indeed, Fareed Zakaria argues that it is not the United States but India that has not lived up to the hype. Given the lower level of engagement that India has indicated it prefers, there would be little appreciable difference between Romney and Obama. Though these disagreements are certainly a factor in slowing the pace of bilateral relations between the two democracies, they are not unusual. As William Avery has pointed out, the United States has had disagreements with even its closest ally, Britain, who did not support US actions in Vietnam.

In fact, there is very little to separate the two candidates when it comes to their India policy. Since 1991 when India was forced to step back from Jawaharlal Nehru’s command economy, India has steadily risen in economic and military importance. Particularly since the nuclear tests of 1998, India has become a country of significance for the United States and will find its way on the foreign policy agenda of both parties and candidates. Interestingly, both Romney and Obama agree on the need to strengthen relations with India, and are keen on nurturing US relations with Japan, South Korea, and Australia after a long break. Both presidential candidates are also concerned with the stability of Pakistan, the links between terrorist outfits and the Pakistani state, and the safety of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear arsenal.

Although Romney has been more vocal on China, militarily as well as economically, it would be a hasty evaluation to take Obama’s criticism of Romney’s anti-China rhetoric at face value. After all, the Obama administration has announced a “pivot” towards Asia and upgraded US military presence in the region (Australia). There is little doubt that the sanguine attitude the US displayed over China’s rise during the Clinton years has disappeared, and both Republicans and Democrats are keeping a close eye on developments in East Asia. However, Republicans have a reputation for being more hawkish, and in this age, it is largely reserved for China and Pakistan. That may appeal to some Indians, but they would do well to remember that it has been New Delhi which has backed away from the American embrace so far. If Raisina Hill maintains this strategy, it will make very little difference who is in the White House.

Another issue that affects Indians is outsourcing. Though no US president will truly act against outsourcing, it is a popular electoral bête noire. In true form, Obama has attacked Romney for outsourcing American jobs to India and China, but the fact is that Romney has neither tried to curb nor promote outsourcing to India, and Obama himself has not been as harsh on outsourcing as he pretends. Ironically, outsourcing is becoming less of an issue for India as Indian companies have themselves started outsourcing to South America, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) is still important to India as it provides the exchequer with close to $11 billion per annum.

India also hopes to find support from the US in building up its international profile. It seeks support in obtaining memberships to an elite group of international institutions – a permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Wassenaar Arrangement (Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies) – for which US support would be crucial. In this, India can expect support from both parties. In the aftermath of Bush 43, there is a feeling that Republicans are more understanding of Indian nuclear needs. As one US official said in private, “We didn’t care about the Indian nuclear programme. I mean, my view always was, that whatever the Indians do with their weapons programme, its not going to be aimed at us. Its going to be aimed at our enemies, or at best people that we are neutral towards. Why do we have to lose a moment’s sleep over this crap?” Yet Indians must recognise that neither administration will be able to offer India NWS (nuclear weapons state) status or clearer and easier terms on ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) technology transfer – the first is a bridge too far (for now), and the latter will be mired in Congress.

Thus, in the final calculation, both candidates are fairly good for India. Insulated from both the Christian Right and the progressive Left, Indians can decide based on purely the merit of the goodies basket Obama and Romney each offer to India. Both candidates appear very balanced on paper. However, the perception that the Republican party will be better disposed towards Indian security concerns give Romney an edge. It needs to be reiterated that this is an edge that can easily be blunted if New Delhi insists on its myopic non-alignment. It should also be emphasised that no US president will go against US interests to favour India – so forget any fantasy about a complete break with Pakistan, a US strike against Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, or US sanctions against Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Nonetheless, the Republican family has many pro-India voices such as Condoleezza Rice, Ashley Tellis, Douglas Feith, and Donald Rumsfeld which should please Indian observers of US elections. In what will be a very close decision from the Indian point of view, India would benefit more from a President Romney.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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