With five months to go and as presently poised, the US election could go either way. However, the unthinkable seems to be happening with Trump pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in a series of national polls. If he is elected as the 45th president, what are the implications for India? Are we building bridges with him and his team? Is the Indian Diaspora in the US contributing to his campaign? Or is it only the Indian extreme right and fringe elements that are welcoming his candidature?
1. The time has come for the Indian Foreign Policy establishment to take a hard look at where the US Presidential campaign is heading. It would not be first time that we have backed the wrong candidate to the great detriment of the bilateral relationship. In any case, Hillary as Secretary of State was hardly “pro Indian”. Nor was her husband, President Bill Clinton, despite his visit to India as President and later. There are already indications that if elected, Bill would play a very important unofficial role in his wife’s administration. Bill always tried to balance India with Pakistan and never demonstrated the same flexibility on the nuclear issue vis-à-vis India, as President Bush Jr. did.
2. Hillary’s greatest weakness at present, apart from her unpopularity and closeness to the establishment, is the refusal of Sanders to withdraw. In national poll projections, Mr Sanders is favoured to beat Mr Trump by a comfortable margin of 10 per cent points, while Ms Clinton and Mr Trump are almost tied.
Many political pundits feel that only Sanders can defeat Trump but that is not likely to happen since Hillary has the numbers and the party behind her, apart from the support of her formidable husband. Trump, on the other hand, having out-manoeuvred all his opponents, appears to be confident of winning the Republican Party nomination. His no-holds-barred attacks on Clinton will further diminish her stature and dent her image. Clearly, he will also go after Bill who is far more popular nationally than Hillary. This would be tricky since Trump has threatened to expose Bill’s numerous affairs and Hillary’s efforts to go after these women. In any case, many women voters do not like Hillary. They may not vote for her at all. To win, she would need, like Obama, an overwhelming majority of black and Hispanic votes. She would also need the white middle class vote and women’s votes. That may be far more difficult.
3. Trump, on the other hand, has already demonstrated that he can exploit the widespread feeling of anger and helplessness across American society and across voters of all ages and colour, with his message that only he can once again make America a great nation. He has promised to revive the fading American dream and in the process has attacked Muslims, immigrants and free trade. He has promised to give nuclear arms to Japan and Republic of Korea, ignoring US’s obligations under the NPT. In fact, he seems to be oblivious to America’s obligations to uphold international treaties or Free Trade Agreements to which US is a party.
4. His statements on Pakistan are particularly interesting from an Indian perspective. He has hinted that he would seek help from India and other nations to address the “problem” of what he described as a “semi-unstable” nuclear-armed Pakistan. In an interview he said: “The problem with Pakistan, where they have nuclear weapons — which is a real problem. Pakistan is semi-unstable. We don’t want to see total instability.” It is not clear whether as President this would translate into a reversal of US policy towards Pakistan. Possibly not, since even Trump, as President, would need to respect the fine line defining US foreign policy based on American national interests. But it could, given his anti-Muslim sentiments and his acknowledgement about India’s greatness, lead to a pro-India slant in Trump’s foreign policy establishment. When a maverick becomes President, anything is possible!
5. As President, Trump would need to distance himself from his earlier pronouncements criticising call centres being outsourced to India and Indians. When he used a false Indian accent to mock Indian call centre workers, he was also quick to clarify that India was a great place and his anger was not against India but against outsourcing. He wants to bring back production units to USA.
Whether this is feasible or possible remains to be seen but it has troubling implications for our bilateral relationship.
6. Never has the outcome of an American Presidential election seemed so uncertain or fraught with so many uncertainties, fears and anxieties. The world is watching for the outcome which could have profound implications not only for the Muslim world but for America’s European allies, for Japan and India, quite apart from the difficult US-Chinese relationship. Mr Trump meanwhile has started sounding more Presidential and less combative. He needs to win over the undecided voter or those who dislike Hillary but are uncertain about him. This constituency also includes women voters who played an important part in ensuring Obama’s victory. With five months to go and at this point in the campaign, it appears to be “Advantage Trump”! It remains to be seen whether it could become “Advantage Hillary” before November, 2016 but this seems unlikely. It is now time for India to reach out to Trump and his camp before the inevitable happens and we are, as often happens, left far from the finishing line!
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador and head pf the Europe desk of the MEA)