How India Sees U.S. Elections

The old formula for evaluating the U.S. presidential contest has given way to complexities.


The fact that the U.S. presidential elections come around in the same years as the Summer Olympics creates a peculiar tripwire for an Indian like myself. To date India has been famously mediocre at the Olympics: we may scrape the odd gold every now and then, but our participants usually come away with bronze medals, the total of which you can count on the fingers of one hand.

There’s no logical connection, but that marginalization somehow links up in my mind to how utterly irrelevant India has always been to any American presidential campaign—not that too many other countries find themselves discussed, at least not in positive terms, in the greatest (and extremely inward-looking) one-on-one electoral contest on earth. And yet many of us in India end up glued to the yearlong battle, with almost the same fascination as watching some Olympic sport in which we have never had any representation.

In the 1960s, in the days before we had TV, the U.S. elections came to us chiefly via the print media. While local Indian newspapers carried the daily developments, magazines like TIME and Newsweek delivered the more detailed analyses (naturally from American points of view) and LIFE® Magazine gave us the visuals. Embedded in the local broadsheets amidst the mess of Indian politics were progress reports on the primaries and the election proper; what such and such candidate said about Vietnam, the Cold War or U.S. foreign aid—whatever might eventually ricochet into our reality; and the odd cartoon from the great daily cartoonist R.K. Laxman making fun of this Democrat or that Republican.

Historically, there was across-the-board agreement in India, even among grown-ups of opposing political views, concerning the outcome of the American presidential contest: A Democrat president would always be friendlier toward India, whereas a Republican was bound to favor Pakistan. This formula proved reliable into the Ronald Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War. Then it began to wobble, and finally fell apart completely with the Bill Clinton administration.

Today the perceived relationship between India and the United States is far more complex and only marginally, if at all, tied to the party of the U.S. presidential victor.

The “Democrats=Good, Republicans=Bad” equation began to be formed when Dwight D. Eisenhower’s United States tilted toward Pakistan in the 1950s.

A Reliable Formula

In India, the “Democrats=Good, Republicans=Bad” equation began to be formed when Dwight D. Eisenhower’s United States tilted toward Pakistan in the 1950s, while giving short shrift to Jawaharlal Nehru’s nonaligned stance. It coalesced further when John F. Kennedy and Nehru formed a warm relationship, and Washington was supportive of New Delhi after the Chinese invasion of 1962.

Democrat or not, Lyndon Johnson was viewed as a mixed bag. The PL-480 Food for Peace program received a huge fillip under Kennedy, with Johnson carrying it forward, and the aid received by India in the 1960s was acknowledged with gratitude. At the same time, it was U.S.-donated Patton tanks and Sabre fighter jets that our military faced in the 1965 war with Pakistan.

Any ambiguity disappeared, however, with Richard Nixon. At his inauguration, the former vice president of the Eisenhower administration was already seen here as being anti-India. And things got rapidly worse. In 1971, when the Pakistan army cracked down on its own East Pakistani population and hundreds of thousands of refugees began to pour across the Indian borders, Nixon and Henry Kissinger, with their unstinting support of the Yahya Khan regime in Islamabad, quickly moved up the marquee to become Public Enemies 2 and 3, right behind the Pakistani military dictator.

During the prolonged crisis that led to war and the eventual formation of Bangladesh, the threat of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet prowling around in the Bay of Bengal, ready to intervene on behalf of Pakistan against India’s army, was very palpable. A couple of years later there was much celebration among India’s intelligentsia when “Tricky Dick” was forced to resign in disgrace.

Continuing down the timeline, Jimmy Carter would still vie for the title of “POTUS most friendly to India.” On his official visit here, President Carter was frank enough to praise the revival of democracy in India following Indira Gandhi’s 1975-1977 Emergency, the 21-month period during which Prime Minister Gandhi ruled by decree after the president declared a state of emergency across the county. However, the benign Carter’s one term overlapped with the even shorter term of the fractious Janata government that came to power in India after the Emergency, and by 1981 both Carter and the Janata government were history.

The supposedly socialist Mrs. Gandhi returned to power in 1980, just before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. By that time most of urban India had television, and people could actually see the actors playing out the primary roles in world politics. The conventions with their banners, the election debates, the confetti, the pomp of the inaugurations, all became part of the visual consciousness of most Indians, especially those with any pretension to being citizens of the world.

Across G.W. Bush’s two terms, many Indians of a certain conservative bent were happy: the short-term maneuvers of the War on Terror brought short-term benefits to India.

But meanwhile, a phenomenon that had begun to develop in the late 1960s continued through the 1980s, and would arguably have the deepest impact on Indo-U.S. relations from the early 1990s onward. As the Indian Institutes of Technology and other colleges began to produce students who could aspire to hold their own in an international environment, as the new urban middle class—especially in Gujarat, Mumbai and south India—began to aspire to live and work beyond the borders of the nation, group after group of young, educated Indian men traveled to America for further studies.

Many of these students stayed on and became U.S. citizens, starting families and careers in America while retaining close ties with their home towns in India. This exodus of professionals knew no parallel in the previous waves of immigration into the “melting pot.” Today’s ethnically Indian U.S. corporate leaders, state governors, mid-ranking politicians and potential Supreme Court judges are all second- or third-generation offspring from this relatively quiet migration, and they are influencing the way America and India relate to each other.

Things Get More Complicated

From the time of Bill Clinton, the perception of the relationship between India and the U.S. presidency has become more complex. Clinton was mostly “good” for India, of course, but as with every other American president there was no chance of him declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, something that India desperately desired.

The Clinton years were the time when the world, and especially the subcontinent, really began to pick up the tab for the official adventures begun late in Jimmy Carter’s term, through Reagan’s rule and that of George Bush Senior. The jihadi seeds planted and nurtured by Washington and Pakistan President Zia ul Haq in Afghanistan from the late-1970s grew into lethal organisms, broadcasting their toxic produce on the winds of local conflict. India, especially in Kashmir, suffered from the effects of this deadly short-termism.

By this time, the old bipolar world had withered, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had collapsed (as we saw it here, more under the weight of their own contradictions than any masterstroke by Reagan and his Star Wars team), and India had, after a fashion, embraced the “free market.” Freed of the Cold War straightjacket, Indo-U.S. relations suddenly had great, new potential to develop in a number of areas. To coin a phrase: it was now a very different ball game. One thing, however, stayed constant: the Indian and American definitions of the exact nature of that game still came from two different—if adjacent—galaxies.

India saw the election “victory” of George “Dubya” Bush as a scandal—that so important an election could be decided on the basis of a few hanging chads was unimaginable to people used to measuring convincing margins in hundreds of thousands. Indians believed Bush Junior was dangerously ignorant for an American president and would therefore be easily manipulated.

The candidacy and huge popularity of Donald Trump are not that outlandish to Indians who have watched Narendra Modi work his way out of the jaws of ignominy to become prime minister.

This was India’s understanding well before 9/11, and it was rapidly confirmed in the aftermath. Bush’s blundering internationally gave rise to deep pessimism in India. However, across his two terms, many Indians of a certain conservative bent were happy and grateful that he was there: the short-term maneuvers of the War on Terror brought short-term benefits to India. Among them, the nuclear deal, which was a huge triumph for both governments; Bush’s push for closer business ties between the countries; and the rebalancing of America’s strategic closeness between Pakistan and India in India’s favor.

For many of our homegrown neocons this was an outcome good enough to allow them to forget that the Iraq smash-and-grab left terminally unfinished business in Afghanistan, now a septic, roiling mess that will take us all decades to sort out. Still, Barack Obama’s inauguration was greeted in India with unbridled joy and happy tears. Obama was “good” for India (even better than Jimmy Carter, according to some old-timers). There were two highly successful state visits. In turn, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accorded a state visit and banquet in Washington, and strategically the countries became closer than ever before.

Though unable to declare Pakistan a rogue state, Obama did the next best thing—he sent in his special forces to kill the world’s number-one terrorist, right in the center of Pakistan’s military plant, providing spectacular proof of India’s accusations that Pakistan has provided wide sanctuary to terrorists. Equally, while the drone attacks in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan might be drawing criticism all over the world for the devastation wreaked on innocent civilians, in many of India’s diverse power circles there is open satisfaction that “someone, at least, is dealing with the jihadis as they deserve.”

Observations from the Back Row

Approaching the denouement of this strangest of presidential elections, we in India are left weighing up the pugilists from the last row of the boxing arena, so to speak. The candidacy and huge popularity of Donald Trump are not that outlandish to Indians who have watched Narendra Modi work his way out of the jaws of ignominy to become prime minister. There are important differences between Modi and Trump, of course, but their startling similarities far outweigh these. Modi may come from a modest background and Trump may have emerged from a silver-spoon warehouse; Modi’s relentless religiosity may be at odds with Trump’s utter lack of it. But beyond that the differences peter out.

The politics of openly creating hate targets; the strong-man act (Trump’s big hands, Mod’s 56–inch chest); the brazen series of lies, each new one erasing the previous one; the verbal trickery akin to a card-shark shuffling a dodgy deck; the gross insults aimed at opponents; the joshing flippancy coupled with the thin skin and willingness to play the martyr; the accusations of corruption against the media whenever any press or television outlet is critical; all of these are scarily of a piece.

Trump’s lurid declarations of his aversion to Muslims are also a big reason why many Modi-worshippers in this country are garlanding pictures of Trump and praying for his victory. And yet, even among those of us who can see the disaster a Trump presidency would be for the world, there is no faith that Mrs. Clinton will turn out to be better for India. Anybody here who has followed U.S. politics and foreign policy for a while knows that Hillary Clinton would, if she thought it expedient, sell assorted Indian interests down the river in a heartbeat, even while making a show of great warmth and deep friendship.

To shift the analogy from boxing to a somewhat nastier sport, Indian observers could be forgiven for thinking we are watching an elaborate version of Russian roulette—a version in which we don’t actually play, but nevertheless get to catch whichever bullet is fired by the results in November.

Ruchir Joshi is a novelist, filmmaker and columnist based in Kolkata. He is the author of a novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh; Poriborton—an Election Diary, a series of reports on the Bengal state elections of 2011; and the forthcoming novel, The Great Eastern Hotel. A regular opinion columnist for The Telegraph newspaper of Kolkata, he also writes for other newspapers and magazines in India, including India Today and Outlook.