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Op-ed: Indiana exports $300M a year to India. Here's how the election may affect that.

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 9/17/2020 Sumit Ganguly, Indianapolis Star
Joe Biden, Donald Trump are posing for a picture: Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and President Donald Trump © Wire services Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and President Donald Trump

As the U.S. enters the final stretch of the presidential election campaign, it may be an apt moment to consider which of the two presidential candidates is likely to enhance Indiana’s economic prospects with one of the world’s largest economies, India.

While India’s economy is currently in the doldrums thanks to the whiplash from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is every reason to believe that it will recover soon. More to the point, Indiana-based firms ranging from Cummins, Cook Medical, Eli Lilly and others, have longstanding ties to India.

In recent years, companies from India, specifically internet technology giants Wipro and Infosys, have also made significant new investments in the state. The Hoosier State exports close to $300 million to India annually, and India is one of Indiana’s top 20 sources of imports.

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President Donald Trump, when he assumed office, promised to dramatically boost American trade, to protect American workers whose jobs were at risk from foreign competition and to enhance manufacturing within the United States. Alluring as these promises were, few, if any of them have actually materialized.

Worse still, in his dealings with a country that has a vast potential market, is a working democracy and is increasingly friendly toward the United States, he has reduced a prior multi-faceted relationship with India that President Barack Obama had carefully cultivated to one that is now personality-based, transactional and focused primarily on security issues. 

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Sumit Ganguly is an Indiana University political science professor © HILLARY DEMMON Sumit Ganguly is an Indiana University political science professor

Instead of developing a relationship with India that is broad-based, engages a range of constituencies including India’s vast civil society, Trump has almost solely dealt with his counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The relationship is now almost entirely reliant of the apparent rapport between the two leaders, effectively excluding other possible channels. Modi, while still popular today, may soon see his standing diminish, especially because of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Worse still, Trump has sought to extract trade concessions from India in trivial areas such as lifting duties on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. This borders on insanity, as the company employs about 5,000 American workers and sells less than 4,000 motorcycles annually in India.

As he has berated India for its high duties on these motorcycles, he has drastically curbed the number of H-1B visas, which enable highly skilled Indian professionals to work in the United States for a period of up to six years. This inflicts real costs on American companies that rely on Indian medical personnel, scientists and engineers to fill crucial jobs. 

Finally, Trump has altered what was a wide-ranging relationship with India on fronts ranging from climate change to combating child trafficking to counterterrorism to one almost wholly focused on expanding weapons sales and courting India to help counter China in Asia.

There is little or no question that security issues should be a strand in the Indo-U.S. bilateral relationship. However, to make it the principal element in the relationship undermines progress that the past several administrations, whether Republican and Democratic, have made. Worse still, it is far from clear that New Delhi wishes to make security the central nub of this relationship.

Biden would avoid a transactional relationship with India

How would a Biden administration handle this important relationship differently? At the outset, it would not pin its hopes solely on the political standing and fortunes of Modi. Modi, like Trump, has profound autocratic leanings, while hounding political dissenters and curbing free speech. Biden, on the other hand, would quietly but firmly tell a friendly, democratic country that it is departing from its own cherished traditions and values.

Nor would Biden, under any circumstances, pursue a transactional relationship with India. He would, no doubt, urge India to avoid protectionist practices, to make the Indian market more accessible to American firms and help boost American exports, especially the Midwest’s vast agricultural bounty to India.

However, he would terminate Trump’s squeeze on H1-B visas recognizing the extraordinary contributions that Indian professionals have made to this country through the program. At another level, given Indiana’s substantial pharmaceutical prowess, a Biden administration, instead of pursuing “vaccine nationalism” that has characterized the Trump presidency, would promote cooperation with India’s vast pharmaceutical industry to wage war against the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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With his years of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has a supple and subtle grasp of the intricacies of diplomacy with a vast and complex country like India. Instead of viewing India as a mere cat’s paw of the United States against China and a destination for American weapons sales, he understands the significance of India in the strategic context of Asia, and beyond.

Beyond trade, India could play a key role in U.S. foreign policy

For example, as the U.S. seeks to reduce its footprint in Afghanistan, India, which enjoys excellent ties with that country, can play a critical role, if only given a chance. Also, instead of simply demonizing Iran, all the warts of its present regime notwithstanding, the U.S. can find diplomatic means to curb its most egregious efforts. Once again, India, which has long-standing links with Iran, can serve as a most important conduit for these efforts.

Over the past four years, President Trump, though his short-sightedness, his transactional outlook and his parochial goals has short-changed both Indiana and India in myriad ways. It is high time for a course correction under a Biden presidency.

Sumit Ganguly is a distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Op-ed: Indiana exports $300M a year to India. Here's how the election may affect that.

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