The ‘Kamala Harris’ Dimension in Indo-US Relations under Biden Administration

Sweta Kumari
November 17th, 2020


Image Courtesy: USA Today

The 2020 US Presidential election has reached its culmination with Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris securing the magic number of 270. There might be some obstacles in their way to the White House as President Donald Trump has refused to concede and filed litigation claiming fraud in elections as this time a record number of people have voted through the mail in advance. 

However, their victory seems almost certain now. Kamala Harris has changed the course of American political history in many ways by getting elected as the first female Vice- President, the first black Vice- President and the first Indian- American origin Vice- President.  Since her nomination as the running mate of Joe Biden, there has been a curiosity among American people and even the Indian public. The presumptions over her views on India and the speculations over India-US relations during a Biden administration have gained considerable momentum. A debate has emerged among policymakers, academicians,  Indian American community, and the general public in India.

One group staunchly believes that owing to her ethnic origin, she will have a favourable opinion about India and on critical decisions on Indo-US bilateral relations. Many people in India have been celebrating Kamala’s victory in the election with jubilation and hopes. Banners wishing her good luck sprang across in her ancestral village in Tamil Nadu for several weeks in the midst of American election campaign.

The other group of opinion makers vehemently opposes this view of “Indianness” in Kamala Harris and claims that she identifies herself more as a person of African-American origin than as an  Indian American. She actually practises the religion of her father. She has often spoken about her parents’ strong beliefs in civil rights and highlighted that, as students, they participated in the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. In addition, Harris has dedicated her career to the justice system of the US. There are assumptions that her judgments and decisions will rely much more on these factors than her links with India. Her views on  India’s policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi Government are yet to be vented in detail. It is important to note that Kamala Harris had resented some of the Indian government’s policies, particularly the abrogation of Article 370 and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act.

However, if one looks at the campaign and response, they present a scenario that may delight and displease both the groups simultaneously. The Biden-Harris campaign’s priority was to secure as many votes as possible to win this election.  Hence, they left no stone unturned to please the American voters, including the Indian community in the United States. In her first speech after the nomination of the Vice Presidential candidate, Harris mentioned her Indian roots and how her mother has been an inspiration to her. Biden and Harris cherished India’s democratic values during the celebration of Indian Independence day. They also wished good luck to Indian-American community during the festival of Navratri. Harris’ appearance with Mindy Kaling and the Dosa preparation video with her were some of the effective ways the Democratic campaign tried to woo the Indian American voters and receive huge donations.

The foreign policy pundits are now engaged in making speculations over India-US relations in a Biden- Harris administration. If one looks into foreign policymaking processes, it is essential to assess the role that the Vice-President of the United States plays in decision making.  As per many political analysts, the role of the Vice-President in overall decision making began to increase since the Walter Mondale period in the 1970s.  In the 21st century,  the VP office has become one of the power centres in the administration.  There are assumptions that the trend will continue during the coming administration, given Kamala’s firm stance on crucial issues and her strong persona. However,  pertinacious strategic and economic factors contribute to the American national interest that determines America’s foreign policy. 

In the present international scenario, India has emerged as one of the most crucial partners of the United States. In fact, it was President Barack Obama with the then VP Joe Biden who recognised the significance of India in the Asia Rebalancing Strategy. The growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region directly challenges US interests in the region and its supremacy in the world. There were very few policy matters where President Trump agreed with his predecessor and strengthening ties with India was one of them.

In the recent turn of events between India and China India has stood firm in response to Chinese aggressive activities in Ladakh and has projected its image as one of the biggest challengers to China’s aspired hegemony in the region. The foreign policy of the US in this century has characterized India as a lynchpin in its strategy to check the aggressiveness of China in the Indo- Pacific region. President Trump sought to establish very robust military ties with India. Now, that there is a change in administration with diverse stakeholders ranging from Progressives (Kamala Harris being one) to Centrists in the Democratic Party, one may expect a new phase of transition. However, India’s current strategic value surpasses the ideological differences, and the next Democratic administration is anticipated by and large to follow this trend. 

Another aspect that is not being emphasized enough is the preparedness of the Narendra Modi Government to deal with the new Biden administration. Prime Minister Modi and his team are known for their skilled foreign policy initiatives. They have managed to get bipartisan support on some controversial issues, such as strengthening relations with Israel while maintaining ties with Palestine; managing exemption from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) and maintaining defence trade with Russia. So even if some concerns are raised from the new administration regarding the status of Kashmir, the Indian government would be ready with a one-year progress report and may even arrange a ground visit for American delegates like it did for the EU members in the last year for assurance. 

Apart from this, there are a number of issues that would attract the attention of the Biden-Harris administration. There might be sincere efforts by the two governments to strengthen bilateral trade relations and work together to establish a comprehensive trade deal. With the growing skepticism towards China, India and the US are expected to collaborate in finding alternatives to global supply chains. The easing of the norms of the H1B visa will further contribute to strengthening the ties. 

Hence, in conclusion, the assumptions that the policies under Kamala Harris as the next Vice President of the United States will be firmly against India or its present government seem too short-sighted. At the same time, the sentiments that her decision making will be driven essentially by her half-Indian descent appear too far-fetched. With some changes here and there, the Biden- Harris administration is most likely to follow the old notion of ‘National Interest’ while formulating foreign policy towards India.

** The author is a PhD scholar of US Studies at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is also an Associate Research Fellow at KIIPS **