The Candidates and India

For the past few months it seems that New Delhi has been shrouded in a thick, meandering fog. For the auto rickshaw drivers and fruit vendors, the intelligentsia and the elite who occupy the steamy Gangetic Plains, the fog has become, as all things in India must, symbolic of an uncertain future. A Pakistan on the verge of doom? An Olympic China who this summer will put India in the shadows? An increasingly bellicose Russia? Wrong on all counts.

For all the calamities bordering the world’s most populous democracy, it is the world’s most powerful democracy, thousands of miles and oceans apart, that so preoccupies Indians. Major Indian papers have taken to splashing their front pages not with the usual lubricious photos of Bollywood vixens and bad boy cricketers, but with two middle-aged, less photogenic Americans: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In a country where newsprint is almost exclusively reserved for the sexy and sporty, it begs the question: are Indians Democrats?

To put it simply, yes. Indians of all stripes, from the Communist parties to the rightwing BJP party, see the past seven years of America’s reckless foreign and economic policies to have been perpetrated at their expense. Even back in 2004, half a million protestors greeted President Bush on his diplomatic visit to India. Four years later, Bush and the America he represents are about as appetizing to India’s predominantly Hindu and Muslim population as a stack of juicy T-bones and plump pork chops.

Two Quagmires

Grappling with its own host of religious fanatics and authoritarian neighbors, India, perhaps more than any other nation, recognizes the two quagmires of the Iraq War and the War on Terror as more than the products of some faulty intelligence or misplaced ambitions, but as absolute shams. While India boasts a thriving democracy, an independent press, and a secular state, the United States overnights military aid to the strong-arm generals and two-timing politicians lording over Pakistan.

The hypocrisy became blindingly clear when in December 2007, The New York Times discovered that much of the $5 billion in military aid was not just underwriting a war against al-Qaeda, but one against India. Apparently, Pakistan figured it beneficial to divert the cash by buying arms suited to a conventional war with the Indian army rather than one with the bands of militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This is no news to India, which has been quietly predicting this situation for years. As reported in the Times of India, the American government’s intent to review military aid to Pakistan comes as a “relief” to the Congress-led coalition in India. This is an understated reaction for such an emotional issue, but perhaps the coalition is playing it safe before the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal is inked.

Still, more important than any ideological spat is India’s most cherished possession: her hitherto earthbound economy. After decades of stagnation, India is the newest cosmonaut of neo-liberalism. In just 20 years, she has skyrocketed to become the world’s second-fastest growing economy, hatched a middle class, and, according to Forbes magazine, produced 27 billionaires (second only in number to the United States). With its Sensex stock exchange soaring, India is worried about the impending U.S. recession. Indians are not keen on seeing their international space station of an economy crash to earth just like the U.S. economy, shaken by eight years of fiscal irresponsibility, is showing signs of doing.

What the Republicans Promise

The Indian left, right, and even much of the center associate Bush’s presidency with cultural and economic inundation. Both the left, which speaks in the name of the rural poor, and the extremely nationalistic right do not necessarily appreciate the outsourcing boom or the flooding of foreign goods into the domestic market. For the 200 million-plus middle-class Indians who benefit the most from their country’s switch to neo-liberalism, the Bush years will nevertheless be framed by his unflinching embrace of Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf, a friendship that nearly every Indian, Hindu or Muslim, left or right, rich or poor, despises.

“People in India are…annoyed with [Mr. Bush] for his pro-Pakistan policies,” wrote Sanjeev K. Sharma, editor of The Indian Journal of Political Science in an email interview. “They dislike him for his sheer indifference towards terrorist acts in India. They find him interventionist.”

A John McCain presidency offers much of the same for the Indian subcontinent, which may partly explain why the Republican primaries and his subsequent nomination hardly received any press in India. McCain publicly defended Pervez Musharraf after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, claiming in an Iowa café in December 2007 that, “prior to Musharraf, Pakistan was a failed state.” That may be true, but nothing irks Indians more than American bear-hugging of Musharraf. Furthermore, his undying support for the Iraq War and the War on Terror do not sit well with Indians eager to see a stabilizing posture to emerge in the United States.

“McCain seems to be a mainstream Republican and in that context, he does not seem to deviate a lot from the Bush administration’s policy toward India,” explains Mohammed Badrul Alam, a professor of political science at Jamia Millia, a university in New Delhi.

Still, Indians of the center and right appreciate McCain’s distrust of their own regional rival: China. In a Foreign Affairs article, McCain portrays China as America’s Asian opponent by writing, “dealing with a rising China will be a central challenge for the next American president.” One way to address this “challenge” would be to throw American weight behind India to ensure that China does not dominate the region.

“McCain will play a fairly balancing role so as to see there is no single hegemony in the Asia-Pacific scene,” added Alam.

Eyeing the Democrats

The Democratic contenders are more appealing to India. Clinton, who co-chairs the Senate India Caucus, is a big supporter of warmer relations. Her connections with India date back to a visit there as First Lady in 2000. In a recent op-ed published in India Abroad, Clinton wrote, “from globalization and nuclear proliferation to climate change and terrorism — India matters more than ever.” Senator Clinton’s hard-line stance on terrorism, from her vote in favor of designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization to her diehard support for Israel’s fight against Hamas, aligns her with the right of center in India and specifically the core of the right-wing Hindu BJP party that paints Islamic militancy as one of India’s major threats. India is also emerging as a key ally of Israel (and number one purchaser of Israeli arms). Though in debates she has rightly termed outsourcing a “problem,” a Clinton presidency would likely continue policies enabling the mushrooming of call centers and IT techies, the meat of India’s booming economy. Despite some recent hesitation about free-trade deals, Clintonomics has almost always been centrist, favoring free trade and deregulation over protectionism or isolationism.

The prospect of an Obama win speaks to India’s foreign policy and immigration concerns. Both Clinton and Obama came out swinging when the Pakistani military controversy emerged late last year. Nevertheless, Obama has stated that he would strike targets inside Pakistan to find Bin Ladin, an action that would certainly temper the current Washington-Islamabad love affair. He, also like Clinton, voted in favor of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal, something centrist Indians desire. And though he publicly favors the abolition of nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely he would press India, a country poised to be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, to disarm. Obama, like anyone elected to the U.S. presidency, will talk tough on terrorism. Still, his favoring of engagement over confrontation and his overall promise of dialogue appeals to the Indians on the left and left of center that have traditionally adhered to non-alignment and an enlightened foreign policy.

Obama also shares the sentiments of the growing community of Indian immigrants residing in the United States. In an interview with Rediff, a magazine focused on the subcontinent, Obama observed that Indian immigrants “recognize that I was very similar to many of them just a few years ago. Somebody, who was able to take advantage of a good education, who doesn’t look like the traditional presidential candidate, doesn’t have a traditional name, but…believes in an America that is tolerant and provides equal opportunity to all people.”

Focus on the Election

Like most nations whose everyday lives are affected enormously by American decisions, India has an enormous stake in the 2008 presidential election. Trade and of course America’s dealings with Pakistan all play a role in India’s crush on the Democrats. Hillary Clinton in the White House could mean continued economic growth in the India’s metropolises. An Obama win could mean security as military dealings with Pakistan would be scrutinized more closely. Both candidates have close relations with the growing community of Indian expatriates. This could translate into laxer family reunification rules and additional visas awarded to talented Indian engineers, doctors, and IT specialists who would like to come. For their family back in Bharat Mataki (Mother India) this will mean plumper remittances.

“Indians are very optimistic about the American presidential election and most of them prefer a Democrat candidate. Most are optimistic about the apparent pro-Indian attitudes of Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama,” added Sharma.

Ultimately, what is important to Indians is India: its security, its economy, and its voice in the globalized world. The epic country has epic problems – slumped literacy levels, millions in utter destitution, Maoist insurgencies, and religious fundamentalism. India is one of the few friends the United States has left in international politics. No, India will likely never send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan and yes, it resents the blank checks the United States has sent to Pakistan, but Indians nevertheless have some of the world’s most positive views of the United States. This suggests a belief in that tired, tattered, but tested American dream: the possibility for change. But walking the tightrope of globalization and healthy, inclusive development, India understands the impact another blundering American presidency would have on its future.

Hope in a Clinton or Obama victory in November 2008 encompasses and reflects a sense of their own dreams, but concluded Dr. Sharma, “the hype in the Indian media about the U.S. presidential elections is also about their apprehensions.”

Sammy Loren, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), is an independent journalist and a documentary filmmaker currently living in India. Please check out his other projects at www.mindfulmediacollective.blogspot.com.