As India prepares to host US President Donald Trump in the next few days, Delhi would want to factor in two important developments this week in America. Trump’s visit is an opportunity for Delhi to limit the potential negative fallout from these two developments and take advantage of the emerging possibilities.
One is the impeachment drama that is expected to conclude on Wednesday with the Senate acquitting Trump of the charges framed by the House of Representatives. A liberated president is expected to pursue his political agenda with greater vigour. The other is the challenge posed by Senator Bernie Sanders’ in the contest for Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. While Trump is now unconstrained, the Democrats are heading towards a political blood bath. Together, the two underline the accelerating changes in America’s internal and external orientation.
Free from the prospects of impeachment, Trump is expected to lay out an optimistic vision for America’s future in his annual State of the Union address to the US Congress on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Democrats are heading towards a major struggle for the political soul of the party. The Democratic Party establishment is nervous that the radicalism of Sanders — who has long identified himself as a socialist — will only help Trump win a second term in the White House. There is widespread suspicion that the grandees of the party will rig the rules against Sanders and deny him the nomination like they did in 2016.
Although the radical platform of Sanders has generated much concern in the Democratic Party, socialism is not new to American politics. Socialists and progressives had significant influence in the early decades of the 20th century. In the post-war era, the two traditions lost out amidst unprecedented expansion of economic prosperity at home and the prolonged confrontation with international communism. In the decades of deregulation and globalisation that came after the Cold War’s end, socialism had become a dirty word. Sanders, however, appears to have broken the taboo amidst the widespread economic discontent that has enveloped the US in the 21st century.
While Trump and Sanders could not be more different as individuals, they are alike in one respect: They promise or threaten — depending on one’s perspective — to overturn the established order in the US. Both are “outsiders” who rose to prominence in the teeth of the insiders’ opposition.
Trump managed to defeat far more powerful candidates in the Republican race for the presidential nomination in 2016 and has consolidated his position against all odds. He has survived the attempts by the so-called “deep state” and the Democratic Party to undo the results of the 2016 presidential elections in which Trump secured a majority in the electoral college while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a large margin of three million votes.
If the initial attempt focused on Russian interference in the elections in favour of Trump, the more recent one focused on Trump’s alleged abuse of presidential power for personal gain in Ukraine and obstructing Congressional investigation into it. Trump, however, has reveled in his confrontation with the establishment and has crossed many red lines on US domestic and foreign policy. He has dismantled much of the regulatory state that constrains domestic capital and overturned the conventional wisdom on trade, migration and American role in the world. Whether it was the result of his policies are not, Trump has claimed credit for the accelerated economic growth in the last few years and the falling unemployment rate.
Unlike Trump, Sanders’ critique of the American system is comprehensive and deep. Pointing to the growing concentration of wealth and the declining opportunities for those at the bottom of the pyramid, Sanders is calling for radical remedies. On his agenda are a significant increase in the minimum wage for workers, renewal of trade unions, universal healthcare, abolition of college debt and free tuition, shift away from fossil fuels to hundred per cent renewable energy and massive taxes on what he calls “extreme wealth”. While this agenda frightens the Democratic Party’s leadership, it has fired up the young and the working people to rally behind him in large numbers.
There are two things, however, that are common to the agenda of Trump and Sanders. Both oppose free trade and agree on ending America’s “endless wars”. The shift away from free trade in the US demands that India adapt to the new dynamic where bilateral trade deals are supplanting the multilateral regime. Delhi, which had been slow to respond to this change, now has an opportunity to make amends during Trump’s visit. Media reports say a trade deal worth $10 billion is on the cards when Trump comes to India. That is much too modest and Delhi needs to be ambitious in imagining its commercial ties with the US the transformation of global trade politics.
Both Trump and Sanders are also calling for a measure of retrenchment from the costly global burden that America has borne since the middle of the 20th century. Both are eager to withdraw US troops from the Middle East and Afghanistan. While an American retrenchment could create a potentially dangerous vacuum, it also opens space for India to step in and take larger responsibility for regional and global security affairs.
India has always claimed such a role and in more recent years, its capability to undertake such a burden has improved. Trump’s visit is an opportunity for New Delhi to think boldly about expanding Indian contribution to the stabilisation of Afghanistan and the Gulf region. In the past, the US tended to discourage India’s role in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Today, Washington is urging Delhi to do more for peace and security in India’s near and extended neighbourhood.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 4, 2020 under the title “Challenge of new American politics”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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