Americans opt for change

In a fiercely contested election in the US, Democrat nominee Joe Biden came home safe confirming an earlier reading that given the fact of the campaigns this time having focused largely on the domestic scene and the persona of President Donald Trump, there was a quiet undercurrent of disapproval of the way the outgoing President was functioning at home.

Trump had the advantage of greater personal visibility but as the election drew close his disruptive outpourings sharpened the divide between his staunch supporters and the moderate and sober sections of the Americans. Biden apart from highlighting the leadership flaws of Trump, pitched on the alleged mishandling of Covid-19 pandemic by the latter, there is little doubt that Trump was being dismissive of the people's legitimate fear of the deadly corona virus that was continuing to cause enormous loss of life in US Trump almost gave an ideological twist of 'economy versus public health' to a real time threat and in the process even played down the two crucial precautions about mask and social distancing recommended universally for countering the contagion.

Finally, foreign policy issues, the highlight of earlier Presidential polls, did not really emerge as a key concern this time in spite of the loud denunciation of China by Trump in the context of both Covid-19 as well as the Chinese aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

Three factors seemed to have proved decisive in shaping the American electorate. First, the call of America First did not resonate the way it had done last time even though Trump claimed he had that way been able to save the economy against a global crisis and job losses that all countries had suffered on account of the downturn caused by the corona crisis. Trump used the strategy of proclaiming that he would not allow the pandemic, which he blamed on a wilful act of China, to take down the US economically but the Americans were evidently impacted by Biden's consistent charge that Trump had not cared to use his federal authority to enforce at least a minimal lockdown and other cautionary measures required to deal with the Covid-19 disaster. Trump's attitude of ridiculing these precautions did not amuse large sections of the people in US.

A second reason for Trump's decline lies in the distinct shadow of racism that was cast on this election because of the rise of 'Black Lives Matter' movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, in full public view by a white policeman at Minneapolis on May 25. After Floyd had been taken into custody on a minor charge the rogue cop put the African-American down and pressed his neck with his knee for several minutes choking him to death. Trump did not condemn the policeman and instead decried the subsequent protests as the doing of the ideological left. His shrewd calculation that a perception about his being soft on racism would only strengthen his core constituency of the native White American population spread across rural side besides the factory workers, did not work out. The racist factor did appeal to some sections of whites but the loss of votes of many peace loving Americans besides the bulk of coloured people outweighed that advantage. Criticism of the 'divisive' policies of Trump made an impact, the extraordinary increase in postal ballots certainly showed that African-Americans who did not come out for voting in large numbers earlier must have made use of the facility on a bigger scale. All of this ultimately showed that American democracy did not uphold White Supremacism or racial discrimination. The victory of Biden in Pennsylvania, a state where the coloured population was concentrated only in urban centres, validates this interpretation. As regards Indian Americans many would have been drawn to Trump for his friendship towards India but without endorsing the pro-White element in his persona.

And finally, the American voters in a broad understanding of security against external threats facing the US had given marks to Trump last time for strongly standing against Islamic terror when Hillary Clinton, in trying to be politically correct, was being ambivalent about it but the Republican candidate did not have any particular foreign policy advantage this time. Trump's emphasis on the new threat from China was counterbalanced by Biden's campaign against Russia, a country whose Soviet avatar as an adversary still impacted the American mind. India would remember and appreciate that President Trump, who did not like the US to play the 'Policeman for the world' one sidedly would not hesitate to militarily take on China in Indo- Pacific or elsewhere. This was important for us and it is no surprise therefore that the Modi government felt reassured in Trump regime of the US support in India's confrontation with the Sino-Pak axis. Consequently India had no hesitation about stepping up its active participation in QUAD.

Continuity of the pro- India policy of US is crucial for this country to plan its defence and security strategy. India and US were deemed to be the natural strategic partners for the future and India always sought bipartisan support of US on matters affecting our security and economic interests. The spread of 'radicalisation' in the Muslim world and the opportunistic alliance between a 'godless' Chinese regime and the Army controlled government of Pakistan fostering Islamic extremism, justify the Indian policy of joining hands with the US to lead the fight of the democratic world against that twin dictatorship. Hopefully the India-US convergence on these crucial matters will continue to be there under Biden. Biden was the Vice President when Obama administration declared India as a major defence partner of the US. He has so far said the right things on domestic matters as the President elect and unlike Trump he will be more forthcoming on global affairs. His stand on the problem created for India by the hostility of the Sino- Pak combine would be keenly watched. This election has installed Kamala Harris of Indian origin as the first woman Vice President of US- to the great delight of Indians -and certainly she would be a major influence in keeping India-US strategic partnership at the level it has reached already. India would expect Biden Presidency not to allow any leeway to Pakistan on the issue of cross border terrorism that the latter had used as the instrument of its 'proxy war' against India. The new administration will have to show sensitivity towards India's stand that Kashmir was at best a matter of bilateral discussion with Pakistan -not open to third party intervention.

Some strategic analysts in India still grounded in the era of Cold War continue to talk of the virtue of non-alignment in relation to the geo-political polarisation that was lately building up between China and the US- they suggest India should not even think of 'taking on China'. They forget that India is a major power now that is why China was active in trying to contain Indian influence in the region. The Indo-US friendship is based on a healthy give and take and not a one-sided relationship of dependence towards a Superpower. The new threat of faith-based terror emanating from the Islamic world and the polarisation that was now in evidence between the democratic countries and the autocratic regimes, are the developments that are rightly shaping India's foreign policy responses in the post-Cold War years. Today India can stretch China on LAC and independently deal with Pakistan on the LOC undeterred by the Sino-Pak collusion. India joining the multilateral effort to keep Chinese designs in Indo-Pacific region at bay is a step in safeguarding Indian Ocean as well. India has to maintain strategic flexibility in choosing the best options in matters both of national defence and economic development. Clearly the ideological baggage of the past is not for India to carry any more. We can develop mutually beneficial relationships with countries like Russia, Israel and even Iran independently of Indo- US special friendship and that should be the hallmark of our security policy.

Strong nations should be open to taking bold decisions for the present and the future and not bound to whatever was done in the exigencies of the historical past. India has to deal with the global scene as it develops and if necessary make course correction to safeguard national interests.

It is in this backdrop that the stamp put on the strategic partnership between US and India by the recent 2+2 dialogue at Delhi comes as a timely development that would effectively strengthen India's defence. The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that provides for the sharing of high end military technology, classified satellite data and critical information is the culmination of the process of defence collaboration between India and US that had been going on during the Modi regime. It saw two strategic pacts signed earlier- Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement of 2016 and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) finalised in 2018. The first allows the militaries to use each other's bases for repairs and replenishment of supplies while the other guarantees inter-operability between the two militaries as well as the sale of high end technologies by the US to India. The BECA completes the hardware and operational integration of the defence forces of India and US against a common adversary. In a situation of prolonged stand off between India and China on LAC and the emergence of Sino-Pak military axis against India, the pacts with US have come in time. It is expected that India-US cooperation would extend to countering all the threats facing the two nations, during the Biden regime. Clearly India has to strategise for dealing with the new dangers posed to its national security without getting into unwanted fears and prejudices about the US and keep up the policy direction set by it during the Trump regime.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)