Indian Americans’ active participation in the presidential election indicates their growing political clout.
By Mukul Bhatia and Vignesh Prasanna
Indian American senator Kamla Harris’ historic nomination as Democratic vice presidential candidate and the community’s active participation in the 2020 US presidential election adds an important dimension to US-India relationship.
With the elections on the horizon, a trio of experts analyzed their significance on India and the world, role of the Indian American diaspora and business groups in American society and politics in the latest episode of The Bridge Project.
The guests on the podcast, a student-led initiative that seeks to bridge the gap between academia and policy making, included Arun M Kumar, Chairman & CEO, KPMG India; Sanjeev Joshipura, Executive Director, Indiaspora and Rajesh Mehta, international consultant and columnist.
Looking at US-India ties in the wake of the elections, they also examined the Trump administration’s record vis-a-vis strategic and economic cooperation with New Delhi, the areas of cooperation in light of the covid-19 pandemic and the future of US-India relations in the coming years.
Indian Americans in the polity
Former President Barack Obama had characterized this relationship as the defining partnership of the 21st century.
The active participation of the Indian Americans in the 2020 US Presidential Elections is indicative of the communities growing political clout and adds an important dimension to US-India relationship, experts said.
“In the last election cycle, in 2018, there were over a 100 candidates of Indian-origin running and at all levels of government, whether it was federal, state or local,” said Sanjeev Joshipura.
“Today, in 2020, there are multiple hundreds of Indian candidates running at different levels. Prominent example is Kamala Harris who is on the Vice-President ticket from the democratic side but she is not the only one,” he said.
Until eight years ago, Joshipura added, Indian Americans had “nothing to say for themselves” in terms of political participation, having only made strides in areas such as technology, finance, medicine, entrepreneurship and academics.
Joshipura also highlighted the tremendous contribution of Indian companies in US and global companies that were led by people of Indian origin in terms of employment generation, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility programs.
According to Arun Kumar, who played an instrumental role in the 2005 US India civil nuclear deal, not only did the deal help India move towards the role of a responsible nuclear power and fostered greater US-India strategic engagement, but also “brought a lot of Indian Americans into the political process.”
The experts also highlighted the pertinence of various organizations in both India and the US for creating “bridges” between the two nations and facilitating greater cooperation.
Political dimension of US-India relations
On the interface of the US-India relationship under the Trump administration, the experts agreed that there had been a deterioration of trade ties between the two countries.
“I think the biggest failure of the Trump administration engagement with India was not to achieve even a mini trade deal despite PM Modi and President Trump having personal chemistry,” said Rajesh Mehta.
“The stalled negotiations creates a lot of uncertainty and bottlenecks for us companies in India and vice versa.”
“The relationship or the optics of the relationship between President Trump and PM Modi has catapulted the US-India relationship,” said Joshipura.
However, he added that the removal of India’s GSP, immigration issues such as green cards and H-1B visas had been a source of disappointment.
The experts echoed the view that India can expect significant improvements in its relationship with the US under the Biden administration.
“For a global perspective Trump has been a big failure,” claimed Mehta. “The US’ global reputation has hit rock bottom over Trump’s corona response. His policy failures have done lasting damage as the President has insulted allies and undermined alliances.”
“His actions and views on issues like climate change, science, multilateralism, race and immigration are so catastrophic that he could be a potential disaster for the world,” he said.
“The world needs a leader who has statesmanship qualities & can resolve global conflicts and revive globalization. I think Biden would be a better choice for both India and the world.”
“Joe Biden has promised he will be giving citizenship to Indians who do not have proper papers. I believe Biden’s chances of sealing a trade deal or military deal are higher,” Mehta said.
“He was instrumental in the nuclear deal and I believe with him coming in the office we might sign the deal quickly.”
“India would be able to resume its friendly relation with Iran and complete pending purchases which unfortunately had stopped because of President Trump’s dictating attitude,” he said.
“India and the US would be able to work in areas like global health and climate change.”
“I feel like in the Biden administration there will be more conversation between the two parties but i don’t want to minimize the fact that there will be differences. The question is how do you work through those,” said Arun Kumar.
What India can offer
An area that needed immediate attention was the regulatory environment within India, the experts felt.
“Both India and the US have multiple sets of standards of products and services. How do you synchronize and harmonize them? How do we have multiple regulators talk to each other and come to a set of regulations that can be easily dealt with by companies on both sides,” Arun Kumar asked, while highlighting the importance of regulatory simplification.
Similarly, in order to induce global businesses to shift supply chains from China to India, Mehta opined that, “India needs to remove regulatory policies like trade barriers, import restrictions, logistical inefficiencies, high tariffs, increased custom duty, and, overcome both infrastructure and government challenges.”
“The Quad Alliance can also strengthen the Aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) Program because it might lead companies from US, Japan and Australia to move supply chains to India,” Mehta added.
“Like Apple has started manufacturing iPhones in India, similarly other US companies can diversify and take advantage of the Atmanirbhar Program.
“US companies would have to send low risk or high reward products to try in India while keeping its base in China initially.”
The long term challenges that the two democracies face in engaging with each other also emanate from their domestic politics, one of the experts suggested.
“You can step back a little bit and say that at the end of the day, all of this is about domestic politics. If you want to take care of agriculture and dairy farmers, you have to make sure that they should be brought to the table,” Arun Kumar claimed.
“If India wants to protect certain cultural practices those issues have to be on the table. Such domestic constituencies have to be protected by democratic governments,” he said.
US-India Defense ties
The experts, on the other hand, applauded the strengthening of US-India defense ties.
“On the defense and security side, the relationship has not been better, with India and the US engaging in co-production and co-development of defense equipment”, said Mehta.
Global businesses could benefit the most in the defense sector while investing in India due to “increased FDI in defense from 49% to 74% through the automatic route,” he added.
The experts particularly hailed the revival of Quad saying, “Revival of Quad among US, India, Japan, and Australia is a success of the Trump administration.”
“That quad has a potential of becoming an economic block, which would facilitate investments, innovation, infrastructure development and mobility of professionals. Quad & Quad plus is an Alliance to counterweight Chinese might and power.”
“The Quad Plus has the makings of something very significant among countries that are sort of like minded in terms of democratic values,” Joshipura remarked.
India’s Atmanirbhar Program
Turning towards India’s ambitious Atmanirbhar Program, Mehta remarked that, “India needs support of US investment in energy infrastructure, agriculture, defense.”
“Through Atmanirbhar program, (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi wants to give a red carpet to US companies to manufacture in India, not only for India, but for the rest of the world and since US companies are diversifying business from China they can think of India as a potential country to enter at this stage.”
However, he also pointed out the need for caution while implementing the Atmanirbhar Program.
“The biggest despair about the US-India relationship is the tendency to become inward. ‘America first’ & ‘Aatmanirbhar program’ are great concepts of self-reliance and fill the country with patriotism, but there is a danger that it might lead to protectionism, crony capitalism and license permit Raj at some point of time.”
“I hope India does not produce cars like we had in the 1960’s & 1970’s when we had huge protectionism to protect our automobile industry,” said Mehta.
Confidence in future
Experts also articulated their vision of a stronger US-India partnership in the future. They particularly emphasized growing collaboration between the countries in the field of science and technology.
“There is a senior official here at the Indian embassy in Washington DC for example, who is tasked with increasing US and India scientific collaboration and research,” Joshipura said.
“US universities are also waking up to the potential of not just the Indian market but of Indian academic talent and the potential and not just to have India as a source of students for the US universities, but also as a source of academic collaborators and research partners,” he said.
“Bilateral initiatives like US India Technology Forum, the US India Science & Technology Endowment Fund and GPAI are the examples of the potential of a huge alliance between India and the US,” Mehta added.
Donald Trump claims support of Indian Americans (September 5, 2020)
Trump, Biden campaigns wooing Indian Americans (July 21, 2020)
Who would Indian Americans root for in US Presidential poll? (January 23, 2020)
Indian Americans emerge as key constituency in battleground states (August 23, 2020)