As political polarisation impairs the bipartisan fervour of US foreign policy, New Delhi must adhere to its non-partisan approach to Washington.
Early this month, India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar deemed India to have “a very nonpartisan” outlook towards the United States' domestic politics. While on a three-day visit to the US, Jaishankar underscored India's approach as: “whatever happens in this country [US] is their politics, not our politics.”
These comments came in response to sharp political criticism of the 'Howdy, Modi!' rally in Houston, Texas. Held in late September, the event featured Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump addressing a crowd of over 50,000 Indian Americans. Given Trump's political arithmetic on Indian Americans in context of his re-election bid, the Indian National Congress (INC) - the primary political opposition to Modi's Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) - alleged the event to have “violated the time-honoured principle of Indian foreign policy of not interfering in the domestic elections of another country.”
As the 2020 election season takes off, it remains to be seen if Trump's appearance alongside the popular Indian Prime Minister will bear political fruit in the emergent battleground state of Texas - home to nearly 270,000 Indian Americans. Beyond the political optics of the rally, however, the centrality of defence ties in the broader trajectory of the US-India dynamic was writ large.
The Modi impetus to US-India defence ties
At the 'Howdy, Modi!' rally, Trump announced the first-ever US-India tri-service military exercise. Slated for coming November, Trump said the military exercise - codenamed “Tiger Triumph”, will “demonstrate a dramatic progress of our [US-India] defence relationship.”
The announcement significantly came at a time when Indian, American and Japanese navies were coming together off the coast of Sasebo (Japan) for the
The announcement thus, stood as a testament to the rising US-India trajectory on force interoperability as India conducts “more joint military drills, tabletop exercises, and defence dialogues with the US than with any other country, which include more than 50 'cooperative events across all Services' annually.”
Under Modi, the impetus to US-India defence ties has been unprecedented. Consider the fact that since the final year of the
administration, the Modi dispensation has ramped up the pace of inking defence interoperability pacts with the US. In its first term starting in 2014, the Modi government put in force the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). Signed with the outgoing Obama administration in 2016, the same pertained to “reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies, and services” between Indian and American armed forces. Thereafter, a year into the Trump administration, the Modi government signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (
). This second US-India defence interoperability pact pertained to “access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms.” Furthermore, after Modi got re-elected in 2019, the US and India are now
ironing out differences on the final interoperability agreement - the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), on joint access of geospatial maps.
The rising tempo of developments on this front has indicated the Modi government's strong inclination to pursue “platform synchronisation via these formal agreements - that mostly pertain to technicalities like geospatial mapping and communications, supplementing the operational synchronisation at play during US-India military exercises.”
Further developments on this front, however, stand susceptible to the intense polarisation now impairing the bipartisan fervour of US foreign policy.
American foreign policy in the age of fractured bipartisanship
American foreign policy has traditionally functioned under the Vandenberg dictum of stopping “partisan politics at the water′s edge". Through the Cold War and thereafter, the same forged an iron-clad bipartisan consensus on some tenets of US foreign and security policy. These included, the continued American promotion of liberal
values, encouraging the sustenance of an Open Door global economic system, underwriting the security of its allies around the world, and sustaining outmatched US military spending.
With possibly the sole exception of the final tenet - as the US earmarked a record $716 billion as defence budget for fiscal year 2019, the rise of conservative nationalism has spurred an abhorrence towards the United States' “
” role in the world.
Moreover, this conception of American foreign policy thought, currently encapsulated by Trump's '
' worldview, has exacerbated domestic political polarisation. The extent to which this partisanship animates contemporary US foreign policy has put partner nations that once enjoyed unquestionable bipartisanship under considerable strain.
For instance, with Democrats drumming up
of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former US Vice President Joe Biden, Kiev risks becoming a partisan sticking point. Ukraine has enjoyed bipartisan support in terms of receiving aid and military equipment against Russian aggression. With the Zelensky government possibly paying heed to Trump's requests, however, it “cannot risk alienating Democrats in case they win the presidential election. Seeming to favour either side risks turning Ukraine into a partisan issue in which it is seen to be an ally of one side or the other.” Similarly, even Israel is emerging as a fault line between Republicans and Democrats. As the core of the Democratic Party shifts further to the left, its emerging faces like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13) have come under fire. Their criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and underscoring the supposed overt influence of the Jewish lobby in US politics has ratcheted up American partisanship. Most notably, Trump and the Republicans have construed the Democrats as being anti-Semitic and even accused them of being anti-Israel.
In this developing partisan context, India cannot afford to lose the bipartisan fervour it currently enjoys. Especially, with regards to the discussed elevation under Modi of US-India force interoperability, its complementing facet of US-India defence trade crucially rests on continued bipartisanship support for India on the Capitol Hill.
Road to US-India defence ties passes through the (Capitol) Hill
Support for India and US-India ties is
on the Capitol Hill. In the US House of Representatives, the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans is the largest country-specific caucus. In the US Senate, the India Caucus is the
country-specific caucus. As a testament to their role, even before the George W. Bush administration sought the recalibration of American opposition to India's nuclear programme, influential members of the India caucuses were paving way for contemporary US-India ties.
by the bipartisan pair of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) for instance, led to India's acquisition of the first US-built warship - the Austin class amphibious transport dock ship Trenton. Thereafter, with bipartisan co-sponsorship by Congressional heavyweights like Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY-17) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL-18), exemptions for India under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, were put in place with the
- Henry J. Hyde United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006.
Since having this crucial component of the US-India Civil
Agreement in place, an exclusive bipartisan focus on India's defence capacity-building has been underway at the Capitol Hill - towards gradually laying the legislative foundation stones for US-India defence trade. Some recent actions by current or former members of the bipartisan India caucuses on the Hill include,
the American executive to grant India the status of 'Major Defence Partner',
to India with Strategic Trade Authorisation - I,
the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative to also include India as a fund recipient country, and
Section 231 of Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to include waiver provisions for India.
Going forward, this continued bipartisan effort to further institutionalise US-India defence ties in legislative precedents is going to be key. For instance, the ongoing Congressional effort to designate India with 'Major Non-NATO Ally' (
) status is going to be key for the transfer of sensitive technologies like Unmanned Aerial Systems.
Hence, as political polarisation impairs the traditional bipartisan character of American foreign policy, New Delhi must continue to adhere to its non-partisan approach to Washington.
is Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.