The Pulse

What the US Midterm Election Results Mean for US-India Ties

A Republican takeover of Congress will likely result in stronger U.S.-India ties.

What the US Midterm Election Results Mean for US-India Ties
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday night, the United States held general elections, with the entire House of Representatives up for grabs as well as a third of the Senate’s seats and several state positions. The Republican Party won control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress. Here’s what the U.S. elections mean for India and Indians.

On the domestic level in the United States, the South Asian community is dominated by Indian-Americans. Indian-Americans tend to overwhelmingly support Democrats, even though their profile as a high-earning, family-oriented group would make them seem like a natural Republican constituency. According to Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), this may be because most Indian-Americans settle in blue states such as New York and California, which “colors their perspective.” Others have “bought into a toxic culture of victimhood, despite the obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of Indian immigration came after the United States experienced the great civil rights victories of the 1960s.” However, the real explanation seems to be that most Indian-American grievances with the Republican party revolve around their perception of the party as overtly Christian and white, a fact that makes them feel unwelcome in the party. Indian-Americans would prefer a model of religious pluralism. Many Indian-Americans also believe that the party is opposed to immigration and immigrants, including those from India.

While some of the Indian-American community’s perceptions of the Republican Party are true, not all of them are. An individual candidate’s positions may be good or bad for Indian-Americans, regardless of his or her party affiliation. Republicans have a better track record of electing high-ranking Indian-Americans. The United States’ two most prominent Indian-American politicians are both Republican governors: Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who won reelection yesterday, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Both individuals have been criticized by some for dissociating themselves from their Indian roots in order to succeed politically in southern states (for example, both converted to Christianity). Nonetheless, they have maintained links with the Indian community and supported Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent trip to the United States. However, it should still be noted that the only prominent Hindu politician in the U.S. is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (who also won reelection yesterday).

Indian-American Democrats fared poorly in the 2014 elections like the rest of their party: all but one of the three Indian-American Democratic candidates lost their elections (Gabbard is not Indian). The two individuals who lost were Rohan Khanna from California, and Manan Trivedi from Pennsylvania. Additionally, a prominent Indian-American gubernatorial candidate from the Republican Party, Neel Kashkari, lost in California. Ami Berra from California, however, won on the basis of a narrow margin in a recount.

On a foreign policy level, the overall impact of a Republican Congress in the U.S. on Indo-American relations will probably be somewhat positive. With the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power in India, both countries will have right of center legislative bodies, placing them more in sync with each other. While it is debatable as to whether a Democratic or Republican Congress in the U.S. is better for Indian-Americans, a Republican Congress would definitely be more pro-India than a Democrat led Congress. The reason for this is simple: the Republicans’ foreign and economy policies align more with India’s interests than those of the Democratic Party.

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Despite the nexus between the Clinton family and many Indian donors, especially those from Punjab, the overall policies of the Democratic Party toward India have not been very positive. In fact, it has been alleged that Hillary Clinton has been out to “get” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi under the guise of human rights issues but in reality for taking stands that differed from those of the United States. President Barack Obama has frequently criticized the movement of American jobs, especially professional ones, to places in India such as Bangalore. President Obama has been seen in India as overemphasizing the special bilateral relationship between the United States and China, much to India’s chagrin. India has also been critical of Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, arguing that it would be a mistake for American forces to draw down so quickly. Additionally, India has not been happy with the U.S. Congress’ continued aid and support towards Pakistan’s military.

There is a consensus in the Democratic Party for better relations with India; however, this consensus rarely goes beyond words. On the other hand, a Republican Congress would be much more favorably inclined toward India in terms of offering weapons deals, trade agreements, investment, and security assistance. Republicans have also become increasingly critical of foreign aid without results, as a part of their larger criticism of government spending. This includes aid to Pakistan. Republicans have also been more critical of China and many would like to cultivate better ties with India instead of China. This was the attitude of the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush, who pushed the India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Several prominent Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator John McCain, have expressed an interest in getting things done with India. McCain, who is a big proponent of stronger ties with India, looks set to have a prominent say on defense and arms and will likely be a key ally in helping expand the geostrategic partnership between the two countries. India’s new government seems to be much more open to investment from the U.S. than previous governments. Investment is something that Republicans are likelier to get behind too, as the party is more open to foreign investment by American companies. It also tends to support free trade and is less protectionist than the Democratic Party. Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate from 2012 said with regard to India that “we’ll see new opportunities created selling products there. We’ll have a net increase in economic activity, just as we did with free trade.” This view is reported to be widely shared among Republicans with regard to India. Since President Obama does not necessarily oppose greater trade or defense cooperation with India, it is likely that U.S. government initiatives towards India will not meet much opposition from either the legislature or the executive.

Expect to see India-U.S. ties improve, or at least for there to be more deliverables in the near future because of the favorable political climate in both countries. Republicans are more favorably inclined towards India and their policies are more beneficial towards India’s trade, geopolitical, and defense priorities.