During his telephone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday night, United States President-elect Joe Biden spoke about “strengthening democracy at home and abroad”, words that are being seen as referring implicitly to the current situation in India and in several other parts of the world.
While the Biden-Harris transition team’s readout of the phone call said that Biden raised the issues of “strengthening democracy at home and overseas”, the Indian government’s statement said that “Modi warmly congratulated President-elect Biden on his election, describing it as a testament to the strength and resilience of democratic traditions in the United States”.
The mention of America’s “democratic traditions” is an oblique reference to the election process in the US where President Donald Trump continues to insist that he has won, and has so far refused to concede.
The difference in emphasis — where the President-elect makes a reference to democracy overseas, and not just in the US, while the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) doesn’t mention that part of the conversation at all — assumes significance in the context of the Biden campaign’s underlining of “shared democratic values: fair and free elections, equality under the law, and the freedom of expression and religion”.
“These core principles have endured throughout each of our nations’ histories and will continue to be the source of our strength in the future,” the Biden campaign document had said.
A former India hand in the Obama-Biden administration, who has been working with the Biden campaign and now with the transition team, told The Indian Express, “The focus of the Biden campaign has been quite clear: that the world’s two oldest and largest democracies have to live by example.”
During the campaign Biden had expressed “disappointment” with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act into law, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (when she was running for the Democratic nomination for President) had said that “we are watching”, and “part of the values of who we are as a nation is we speak out about human rights abuses and when appropriate we intervene”.
However, South Block feels that the world has changed over the last two decades, and the US administration too has “evolved” under Trump — and that Washington realises that New Delhi does not like being lectured or talked down to.
Indian government sources also noted that the Biden administration, which will take over in January 2021, will find an India and a geopolitical situation that is very different from January 2017, when the Obama-Biden administration left office. With an aggressive and ascendant China, Washington needs New Delhi in its corner.
Biden’s focus on “democracy overseas” would include China as well.
In that context, New Delhi is relieved that China is “not off the hook” — and Prime Minister Modi and President-elect Biden spoke about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The issues of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccines, and the global economic recovery — all of which have strong China overtones — also featured in the conversation over the phone between the two leaders.
The statement issued by the Biden-Harris transition team said: “The President-elect noted that he looks forward to working closely with the Prime Minister on shared global challenges, including containing Covid-19 and defending against future health crises, tackling the threat of climate change, launching the global economic recovery, strengthening democracy at home and abroad, and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”
The MEA statement said: “The leaders agreed to work closely to further advance the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, built on shared values and common interests. The leaders also discussed their priorities, including containing the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting access to affordable vaccines, tackling climate change, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region.”
The Biden-Harris statement framed VP-elect Kamala Harris as the “first Vice President of South Asian descent” — it said, “The President-elect thanked the Prime Minister for his congratulations and expressed his desire to strengthen and expand the US-India strategic partnership alongside the first Vice President of South Asian descent.”
This could indicate that Biden would field Harris as the point person for South Asia, and that would mean that focus on “human rights” issues could be part of her portfolio.
“The Prime Minister also extended his heartiest congratulations and best wishes to Vice President-elect Senator Kamala Harris,” the MEA statement said.
Climate change, which was not a priority during the Trump years, is back on the agenda. The Obama administration had given high priority to climate change, and the US had reached out to India during the climate change negotiations at Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015).
The Indian government source said that Biden, on his transition team’s agenda, has listed four major priorities for the incoming administration: Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. “These will be the main focus areas in the early months of the administration, and those focus areas were part of the conversation between the two leaders as well,” the source told The Indian Express.
During the phone conversation, Modi referred to his two earlier meetings with Biden in 2014 and 2016. Diplomats said it was a “very warm conversation”.
The MEA said, “The Prime Minister warmly recalled his earlier interactions with Joseph R Biden, including during his official visits to the United States in 2014 and in 2016. Biden had chaired the Joint Session of the US Congress that was addressed by the Prime Minister during his 2016 visit.”
Tuesday’s Modi-Biden call took place 10 days after it became clear that Biden had reached the magic figure of 270 Electoral College votes to become President-elect of the United States. Modi had tweeted on November 7 that he had reiterated New Delhi’s commitment to the Indo-US strategic partnership and discussed their “shared priorities and concerns”.
While cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the Covid-19 pandemic are the two areas of continuity between the Trump administration and the incoming Biden presidency, climate change is an old favourite of the Democratic establishment.
Before Modi, Biden had spoken to leaders of major US allies including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and the leaders of Italy and Ireland, and the Pope.
On Tuesday, he spoke to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera, besides Modi.
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