Few in the US administration care about the Kashmir issue, and are frankly irritated that the Modi govt can’t handle the fallout of the revocation of Article 370

Come January, president-elect Joe Biden, in all likelihood, will be in the Oval Office, ready to be briefed by his intelligence agencies. That’s not so routine anymore. Donald Trump took little interest in the President’s Daily Brief and often showed himself woefully ignorant of even basic geography, famously stating once that Nepal was part of India. But Joseph Robinette Biden Jr is another matter altogether. A Senator at 29, and a two-term vice president, he has spent more time in Congress than any candidate.

So, Biden is not someone who has to be told where the borders of a country lie, or that US foreign policy is determined by national interests, and not the pulls and pushes of the moment. Biden as President will see the world, and specifically India, through that lens alone; and in that he will be encouraged by a bureaucracy that doesn’t like wild zig zags in policy. Take a look at the issues that are usually seen in Delhi as vital to bilateral engagement.

Needs-Based Alliance

First, the question of Kashmir. Indian bureaucrats are far more fixated on the possible ‘raising’ of this issue than Congress itself. It is entirely true that Democrats have a history of raising Kashmir and human rights. House representative Ilhan Omar, a frequent critic, is back in Congress, as are ‘hardline’ Indian-Americans such as Pramila Jayapal, and Sheila Jackson Lee, co-chair of the Pakistan Caucus, which was instrumental in Kashmir being raised in the House twice in two months in 2019. Vice president-elect Kamala Harris had also raised the issue during the nomination race. All these are part of politics as usual in the US.

But here’s the reality. Few in the US administration care about the Kashmir issue, and are frankly irritated that the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi can’t handle the fallout of the revocation of Article 370. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the noise on Kashmir didn’t actually affect bilateral ties, with the presidential visit, the 2+2 talks, and US weapons made available at a time of crisis. A new administration will not prevent discussions on Kashmir. But the degree of interest will depend on how much the US needs India, whether New Delhi has the weight to erode such events as in November 2019 when only 4 of 84 members turned up for a human rights hearing, and whether the many Pakistan-financed networks are adequately dealt with.

Recently, US courts decided to indict a Virginia man for concealing the $3.5 million of Pakistan government funds to lobby on Kashmir. As a new administration comes in, the Modi government also needs to ensure that legitimate lobbyists are not hired for three months at a time in a town that thrives on lobbying. While criticism on Kashmir dominates Washington media, India has no story at all on the pathetic status of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) or the extreme human rights violations in Balochistan. That has to change.

China Or Pakistan — What Decides It?

The key clause is how much Washington needs New Delhi. Joe Biden’s intelligence briefing will tell him much about the Chinese military that is concealed from the public ‘Annual Report’ on China. A seminal article in Foreign Affairs proves Biden is well aware of the multifaceted nature of that threat. Or that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared China as the largest economy, or that the fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party is even now formulating plans to take the lead in Artificial Intelligence and emerging technologies, or that President Xi Jinping himself is warning that security is the prerequisite for doubling total economic output by 2035.

Biden is, therefore, hardly likely to roll back the Obama-era defence strategy of a ‘Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific’, which is the base document for the eventual nomenclature of the “Indo-Pacific’. Unlike India, the US decides on a military strategy, then funds it, and shapes weapons acquisition to reflect that strategy. In other words, unless China collapses, this strategy is set in stone. In that policy, the Indian peninsula, jutting well into the Indian Ocean, is crucial. This is China’s lifeline to energy, which it is trying to circumvent by providing grants (rather than loans) for the Gwadar deep sea port, as well as corralling Sri Lankan and Myanmar ports. New Delhi was wise to quickly sign up to the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement just a week before the 2020 US election, which is the last of the four foundational agreements that are signed with US partners. To put it crudely, as long as China remains ‘a country of interest’ to US planners, there is room to play up the value of relations with the ‘largest democracy in the world’.

Then there’s Pakistan. Remember that the ‘strategy for Afghanistan’ — which essentially meant a lean US force training the Afghans, focus on counter-terrorism using US Special Forces, and calling out of Pakistan — was based almost entirely on Biden’s own proposals in 2009, which involved strikes against al-Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, drones and other ‘surgical’ tactics. Biden was also responsible for the ‘Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, which substantially increased financing for Pakistan to $7.5 billion over five years, without anything for the army unless it was certified that not only did they not support al-Qaeda, and significantly the Taliban from operating in the country, but also that Pakistan’s Security Forces “are not materially interfering in Pakistan’s political or judicial processes”.

That piece of legislation, which was two years in the making, infuriated the Pakistani military so much, that it took the unprecedented step of making its disapproval public, leading to a serious undermining of the Zardari government. Biden clearly knows Pakistan and so does the US’ intelligence agencies. In January this year, the Department of Justice indicted five Pakistanis for running a procurement network for Islamabad’s nuclear and missile programme, through some 29 companies. Nobody even noticed it in India.

New Delhi’s Role In It

All of this doesn’t mean that New Delhi gets a free ride on what it wants to do. Trade issues will continue in much the same way as before, without the Trumpian threats and invective. Biden’s promise of a “foreign policy for the middle class” means just that, which is tapping the economies of the world to make life better in the US. A booming Indian economy will help crucially, as it did in earlier administrations. Human rights will come to the fore, worsened by any mention of the Citizenship Amendment Act, or other such divisive legislation.

In the end, bilateral relations depend not on which administration is in power, but on whether India can power up its own performance across all sectors including social stability. The Modi government would be well advised to take it one step at a time, focussing for the moment on the Chinese threat and the economy. The rest is really just clutter.