There is a question that has taken on more and more meaning as India increases in importance on the world stage, while Indian-Americans are involved in American politics as never before. Which candidate, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would be a better president on issues that are important to India and Indians?
Predictably, both candidates have kissed up to Indian-American donors and speak highly of India when given the opportunity. Both claim that India is an important ally and friend to the United States. Strikingly, neither candidate discussed India in the foreign policy debate this week. In truth, it is difficult to accurately forecast the answer to this question based on past records and statements. It’s also unclear how much influence a president can bring to bear on these issues. But it’s worth speculating on.
The primary challenge in this endeavor would be to identify the core issues that Indians consider to be important. India is a vast and chaotic cauldron of democracy, with wildly varying views on religious, political, and social issues. These variances have spilled over onto American soil as immigrants of Indian origin may be found supporting or participating in either political party. For example, Aneesh Chopra and Kal Penn have worked in the Obama administration while Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley are staunch Southern Republican governors, and Dinesh D’Souza has savaged Obama’s psyche from the right. That being said, as a longtime observer of the diaspora as well as US-India relations, I believe the issues that matter most are: trade policy, immigration policy, national security postures, hate crimes legislation, nuclear issues, and personal diplomacy. Below is a breakdown of each.
Trade (Score: Romney) As I wrote in an editorial on this site, Obama has bashed Romney mercilessly on outsourcing throughout the campaign, and specifically mentions Indian call centers in ads or on the stump in a negative light. The Indian media has picked up on this and although it is more politics than policy, it’s ugly and clearly the wrong message to send from India’s point of view. But China gets it worse. On any other trade metrics, the amount of trade between India and the United States has continued to boom under Obama’s administration. When Obama made his first state visit to India, he took along hundreds of business leaders with him. Meanwhile, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have pushed the envelope on nuclear supplier trade, as detailed below.
Romney is a bit of a cipher on this matter. He talks tough on China’s trade policy, especially as relates to its currency valuation, but does not seem to bring India into this discussion. Ostensibly his business background and his Rolodex of industrialist/banker friends are all for free trade with India continuing unabated. The company he used to run, Bain, has and continues to invest in Indian companies, including ones that do outsourcing, effectively bringing American money and jobs to India. Unlike Obama, Romney does not bash outsourcing to India.
Immigration (Score: Obama) In general, the Democratic party is more likely to promote policy favorable to immigration in general, and from India in particular. Obama has spoken about loosening immigration rules which prevent foreign graduates from staying on in America, thousands of whom come from India to study. He has actively sought an amnesty which would be favorable to illegal immigrants including those from India, but this legislation languishes in Congress.
Romney and his Republican party are more hostile to immigrants. Any sort of amnesty would be less likely in a Romney administration. For that matter, so would any new policy favorable to Indian immigrants, such as granting more H1B visas.
National Security (Score: Tie) The two candidates have nearly identical positions on issues that are important to India’s national security. Both have displayed concern for monitoring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and we all know that India is where most if not all of those are pointing. Romney claims he would go after terrorist groups in Pakistan just as hard as Obama has, including with unmanned drone strikes. Neither as president would come close to breaking relations with Pakistan- and rightly so as Pakistan remains an important US partner. Both campaigns are for cooperation on defense with India, such as joint military exercises and weapons sales. Obama and his national security team have prioritized India as a security partner, and we can expect that to continue under Romney. Romney’s own advisers on foreign policy and national security are, while largely partisans, made up of professionals (including Indian-born ones) familiar with South Asian issues. Both parties are trying to get India to buy more weapons, especially fighter jets, from American defense contractors but neither candidate has an edge on this truly bipartisan wishlist. India is just as happy to buy jets from the French or Russians.
Hate Crimes Legislation (Score: Obama) Indian-Americans have been the victims of hate crimes across the country in recent times, and in this case there is a clear-cut winner. Obama has been a champion of this legislation, and has expanded it to include the LGBT community. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have both been against legislation that further protects minority victims of hate crimes, in their home states as well as while campaigning on the national stage.
Nuclear Issues (Score: Obama) A high-level State Department official told me last year that US policy toward India’s nuclear weapons program has not changed from Bush to Obama, and Bush was universally (and unexpectedly) seen as a very good friend to India on nuclear partnership. Obama and Secretary Clinton have in fact tried hard to push India to use American companies as suppliers for its nuclear program in deals that would benefit both sides, while India’s internal politics have slowed the prospects. Meanwhile, India and the United States have experienced a great deal of friction related to Iranian oil coming to India, with plenty of back and forth about sanctioning India for continuing imports at a high level, and this helped stall the nuclear negotiations too. This has been the biggest bugbear in US-India relations in the last decade. In summer 2012 the two nations finally came to an uneasy truce on this issue, with India taking steps to reduce oil imports under pressure from the Obama administration.
Romney suggests he would be even tougher on nations importing oil from Iran than Obama has been. That would include India and would probably result in a harsher line against India. Meanwhile, Romney’s advisers have said that he would continue to push cooperation with India on its nuclear ambitions rather than going against them, just as Obama has done. This is not surprising considering that it was a Republican president, Bush who initiated this framework.
Diplomacy & Personal Affinity (Score: Obama) It was unclear in 2008 how good a friend Obama would be towards India. However, he did visit India while a candidate, and even carried a Hanuman trinket in his pocket which caused millions of Hindus to view him in a favorable light. Meanwhile, he has dispatched delegations from State and Defense repeatedly to India, with Secretaries Clinton and Gates notably making repeated stops there. Bilateral strategy sessions are now annual. Relations have been good aside from the battles over Iranian oil. Manmohan Singh was the recipient of the Obama White House’s first state dinner- marred as it was by the sari-clad party crasher. The Obamas also had a productive three-day trip to India that brought trade deals, and promises to endorse India for the UN’s Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group. These are as concrete as any steps a US president can take to support India in the diplomatic world. Obama is also a noted admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.
Candidate Romney has traveled to places like England and Israel but did not include India on his itinerary. He speaks highly of India and Indian-Americans in very general terms, but there is no notable mention of it in his foreign policy speeches or his platform. The Republican party did have a Sikh invocation during the Republican National Convention this year, with respect shown to the slaughter in Wisconsin. However, one aspect of Romney’s foreign policy should give Indians pause: he uses hegemonic language and American exceptionalism as the basis of his worldview, which is in conflict with India’s recognition of today’s world as a multi-polar concert.
In the final analysis, Obama has more of a record in this area to stand on, and one issue where he has significant daylight with his opponent, on hate crimes. However, India can expect a Romney administration to be largely as cooperative and friendly as Obama’s has been toward Indian interests. But there is a metric which seems to capture the spirit of the times better than any other: Indian-Americans in polls indicate they will vote for Obama by a 3-1 margin.