How a Joe Biden Presidency Could Change U.S.-India Relations

Anna Purna Kambhampaty
·12 min read

The confirmation on Saturday that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States will reshape the nation’s relationship with countries around the world. Biden has pledged that he will restore the U.S.’s “respected leadership on the world stage” and bring together representatives of democracies around the world to “honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding.” This is in stark contrast to President Donald Trump, who for the last four years has taken an isolationist approach to foreign policy and undermined decades-old alliances.

But Trump has forged a few friendships overseas—including with India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the face of a rising China, the two countries have drawn closer together militarily, too. So, for the world’s largest democracy, the stakes are high for the future Biden Administration.

The pressure goes both ways: Kamala Harris will be the first Indian American Vice President of the United States, a position that has the potential to change Indian engagement with American politics, as well as the United States’ response to issues in India. The relationship between the countries is also especially crucial for India, where the economy shrank by 23.9% in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the largest drop in decades and the greatest setback a major economy has experienced from the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated both Biden and Harris on Twitter. “As the [Vice President], your contribution to strengthening Indo-U.S. relations was critical and invaluable,” he wrote in a tweet addressed to Biden. “I look forward to working closely together once again to take India-U.S. relations to greater heights.”

To Harris, Modi wrote: “Your success is pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis [a Tamil family term that Harris used in her VP nominee acceptance speech], but also for all Indian-Americans. I am confident that the vibrant India-U.S. ties will get even stronger with your support and leadership.”

Read More: How the Pandemic is Reshaping India

Here’s what to know about what the Biden-Harris victory might mean for the U.S.-India relationship.

Biden’s India Policy

Since his re-election in 2019, Modi has pushed through a series of policies seen by many in the country as unduly targeting India’s Muslim minority, including the revocation of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and a new citizenship act that makes it easier for adherents of most large faiths practiced in South Asia, except Islam, to claim citizenship in India. Modi’s government has also sought to suppress dissent, most recently forcing the Indian branch of Amnesty International to shut down through legal pressure, which the rights group said was part of a “deliberate attempt by the government of India to stoke a climate of fear and dismantle the critical voices in India.”

Biden and Harris have both spoken out against India’s human rights violations and Modi’s nationalist leadership. In his Agenda for Muslim-American Communities, Biden condemned the Modi government’s new citizenship act and a separate attempt to build a population register that could provide future justification to expel or intern foreigners, calling the projects “inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”

Read More: ‘Hate Is Being Preached Openly Against Us.’ After Delhi Riots, Muslims in India Fear What’s Next

But Biden has also committed to strengthening the U.S.-India relationship. “The U.S. and India will stand together against terrorism in all its forms and work together to promote a region of peace and stability where neither China nor any other country threatens its neighbors,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in an Indian-American newspaper in October.

The Trump-Modi friendship

Trump and Modi attend "Howdy, Modi!" at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sept. 22, 2019. Tens of thousands of Indian-Americans converged for an unusual joint rally, a symbol of the bond between the two leaders.<span class="copyright">Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images</span>
Trump and Modi attend "Howdy, Modi!" at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sept. 22, 2019. Tens of thousands of Indian-Americans converged for an unusual joint rally, a symbol of the bond between the two leaders.Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Trump and Modi, both right-wing leaders accused by their critics of undermining the foundations of their respective democracies, forged a strong connection between 2017 and 2020. Modi featured heavily in Trump reelection campaign advertisements targeting Indian Americans, and at home Modi has used the relationship to signal India’s rising global stature. Speaking to a packed cricket stadium on a visit to India in February, Trump referred to Modi as “a man I am proud to call my true friend.”

As the strategic relationship between the U.S. and India deepened, Trump looked away from what Human Rights Watch has described as “mounting human rights abuses” under Modi’s rule in India. “The relationship between Modi and Trump has been very mutually beneficial,” says Ayushman Kaul, a South Asia research assistant at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “He has essentially said, America First means I’m not prying in your business if you don’t comment on my business. Modi knows that he’s not receiving the kind of pushback that he would be under a Biden presidency.”

Read More: Here’s the History of U.S. Presidential Visits to India

While the Biden campaign has committed to further strengthening the security ties between the U.S. and India, there’s a big question mark over how strongly it will push back against the Indian government’s rights abuses. “The U.S. would not go in and intervene in domestic matters in India beyond a certain point,” says Surupa Gupta, a professor at University of Mary Washington’s Department of Political Science and International Affairs.

Human rights in Kashmir

When the Indian government sent troops into the contested region of Kashmir in August 2019, announcing it would revoke the state’s constitutionally mandated autonomy, the response from the Trump White House was relatively muted.

India has long maintained that the situation in Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim as their own, is a domestic issue, not for mediation by outside powers.

But in public statements and policy documents, both Biden and Harris have suggested that their Administration would do more than Trump to hold India to account over its actions in Kashmir. “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir,” says Biden’s Agenda for Muslim Americans, published on the campaign’s website. “Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy.”

Harris has been even more outspoken. “We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world,” she said in October 2019, when she was a candidate in the Democratic primaries. “There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

Read More: A Year After India Revoked Kashmir’s Special Status, Kashmiris Worry About a Demographic Shift

Kashmiri activists in the U.S. see the incoming Administration as an opening that they hope might bring an end to the protracted political crisis. “Biden and Harris recognize that Kashmir is an issue that has no military solution and that it must be resolved through dialogue between the Kashmiri leadership, India and Pakistan,” says Ghulam N. Mir, President of the World Kashmir Awareness Forum, in a statement to TIME. “To achieve peace in Kashmir, and put an end to seven decades of human rights abuses, the U.S. government will have to play an active role.”

But experts say that, when in office, Biden is likely to temper public criticism of India. “The Biden team understands that lecturing India publicly or threatening it publicly will not go down well, and will not achieve any change that they want to see,” says Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. “I suspect you might have a Biden Administration that is more likely to bring these issues up privately [than the Trump Administration]. But I think publicly, you’ll see a continuation of what we saw both Obama and Trump do, which is alluding to these issues through talking about the importance for the world of India as a diverse, tolerant democracy.”

The Role of China in U.S.-India Relations

An Indian army convoy drives toward Leh, on a highway bordering China, in Gagangir, India, on Sept. 2.<span class="copyright">Yawar Nazir—Getty Images</span>
An Indian army convoy drives toward Leh, on a highway bordering China, in Gagangir, India, on Sept. 2.Yawar Nazir—Getty Images

Under Trump, the U.S. and India signed three agreements for closer military cooperation, seen by many analysts as a common recognition of an increasing threat from India’s northern neighbor China.

Tensions between India and China escalated significantly in 2020. Over the summer, India banned 59 Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat. Then, its army clashed with Chinese troops high in the Himalayas, on the disputed border between the two countries. Some 20 Indian troops and 35 Chinese troops were reported killed, though both sides gave conflicting accounts.

The escalation came at the same time as consensus in the U.S. was hardening against China—a state of affairs that appears unlikely to change drastically under a new President. The Biden and Trump campaigns shared a hostile view of China, though Trump’s first term was characterized by inflammatory rhetoric that alienated allies, while Biden promises to take a consensus-based approach to coaxing better practices out of Beijing.

Biden has committed to strengthening the military cooperation between the U.S. and India. But if he eventually decides to ease the pressure on China, it could leave India high and dry. “If American policy ends up going slightly easier on China than Trump did, and going after Russia, then that complicates India’s position,” says James Crabtree, an associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific program of Chatham House, a foreign-affairs research institute. “[India] wouldn’t be too keen on that, given they have good relations with Russia.”

Kamala Harris

In 2016, Kamala Harris became the first Indian-American senator. Now, she will become the first Indian-American Vice President. (She is also the first Black person and first woman to win the position.) Experts believe that the historic position for Harris—whose mother came to the U.S. from India and whose father came from Jamaica—will increase political engagement from Indians and Indian Americans alike, as well as create new expectations for the Vice President-elect to speak up on issues in India.

For the Indian diaspora in the United States, the third largest immigrant group in the country, some of that increased attention toward politics has already been seen during the election cycle. IMPACT, the leading Indian American advocacy and political action committee, raised $10 million from mid-July to mid-October.

The excitement among Indian Americans is unsurprising, says Anjali Sahay, director of Gannon University’s political science program, and Harris also “represents a natural and influential ally” to observers in India. The Indian press eagerly covered her presence in the 2020 U.S. election, especially as she embraced her Tamil roots. Her selection was a “triumph of democracy and diversity,” one Indian political commentator said after Harris was announced as Biden’s Vice-Presidential pick, and several local Indian politicians similarly praised the choice. Hours before Election Day, Indians living near the village where Harris’ grandfather is from gathered at a temple to hold a good-luck ceremony for the candidate.

A woman walks past a poster of U.S. vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at her ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram, Tamil Nadu, on Nov. 3.<span class="copyright">Arun Sankar—AFP/Getty Images</span>
A woman walks past a poster of U.S. vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at her ancestral village of Thulasendrapuram, Tamil Nadu, on Nov. 3.Arun Sankar—AFP/Getty Images

That brand of coverage is likely to continue, says Sangay Mishra, assistant professor at Drew University and author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans. “It won’t be covering American politics in a generic way, it will be covering American politics when a person of Indian origins is the second most important person politically,” Mishra adds. “It will be a different kind of storytelling that would happen, and there’ll be a lot more curiosity in general.”

Greater expectations will also accompany that greater spotlight, both in India and in the diaspora. “A lot more people and groups will be reaching out to [Harris] directly, that she should be speaking out or taking a position on certain Indian issues because she knows that part of the world and because that is part of her identity,” says Mishra. That push has already begun: In October, Indian Americans launched an email campaign urging Harris to take action on the brutal rape of 19-year-old Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh.

Immigration and H-1B visas

In June, President Trump suspended H-1B visas through the end of the year. The permit allows specialized foreign workers with technical skills to enter the U.S. and work for American firms, and the largest share of recipients work in the tech sector. Typically, 85,000 H-1B visas are issued each year, and almost 75% of all H-1B visa holders in the U.S. are from India.

“Discussions over work visa programs like the H-1B have been a significant component of U.S.-India ties at-large,” says Kashish Parpiani of Mumbai’s Observer Research Foundation, adding that the U.S. has a need for skilled workers that India is happy to provide.

Then, in October, the Trump Administration announced that it would scrap the lottery system in place to receive an H-1B visa and replace it with a process that prioritizes the highest-paying jobs. “These tightening regulations around the filing and handling of the H-1B visas will be very concerning to Indian IT companies,” says Sahay.

Biden has promised to lift Trump’s freeze. He has also announced that he will go further, reforming the temporary visa system as well as eliminating country quotas on green cards—a policy that has resulted in long waiting periods, sometimes longer than entire lifetimes, for Indians trying to become permanent U.S. residents.

However appealing Biden’s promises of reform may be to Indians trying to enter the United States, they should be taken with a grain of salt, says Parpiani. “The expansion of the H-1B program is not going to be the initial priority, especially because Biden will be inheriting the job losses that have happened in the coronavirus pandemic,” Parpiani explains. “The odds of Biden taking that up and enthusiastically expanding that program are slim.”