Special Reports / The Most Important Election in the World

Obama, Romney, India

Sunil Khilnani · 6 November 2012
If one were to judge by the campaign debate on foreign policy between President Obama and Governor Romney held a few weeks ago, there is very little to separate the two candidates when it comes to U.S. international policy.

Indeed, which it comes to India – which was not mentioned once during the debate – one might think we are back in an era when the U.S. and India preferred to ignore each other. In fact, despite the rhetorical attacks on outsourcing by both candidates during their campaigns, India remains for the U.S. an important area of strategic initiative. This is especially so in light of America’s ‘pivot to Asia’, but equally because India will have to play a role in the containment of Pakistan and in achieving whatever stabilization may be possible in Afghanistan. On the economic front too, India signifies for America, and for the growth prospects of American companies and industries. India’s need for massive infrastructure investment, its vast retail consumer market, and its relatively cheap technically skilled and intellectual equipped labour force, all make it a very attractive destination for U.S. investment and economic engagement.

The great breakthrough in the U.S.-India relationship occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush: his India policy was the one singular success of what otherwise was a series of foreign policy fiascos. However, the warmth generated by the Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear agreement of 2008 cooled somewhat during the Obama presidency. Obama has had a wooden ear for Indian sensitivities: when in Beijing in 2009, he spoke of China playing a role in South Asia and seemed to suggest the possibility of a U.S.-China G-2 emerging, both prospects abhorrent to India. In general, his administration adopted a more transactional attitude in America’s relationship to India, unlike the Bush administration’s explicitly strategic perspective. Although Obama visited to India in 2010, Indians only really embraced a more positive image of the President after the raid on Abbotabad that killed Osama bin Laden, and after Obama made clear that he would pursue a more stringent policy towards Pakistan. For Indians, this showed that finally the American leadership had realized what Indians had professed to know all along – the duplicity of Pakistan’s leadership.

Romney’s views on India are unclear – it’s not a subject he has spoken much about, nor has he ever visited the country. While he can count among his foreign policy advisors on the region some of the most knowledgeable in Washington, it’s not evident that Romney himself has a larger perspective on India, and on India’s role in Asia and the world. While he might be more aggressive on matters to do with China, he’s likely to be more cautious when it comes to Pakistan.

Over the next five years, three issues will be critical for India: a stable regional neighbourhood, which will not be damaged by internal turmoil in Pakistan or Afghanistan; increased foreign investment in India in order to keep growth rates high; and keeping the global economy open and unfettered by protectionist measures. It’s not evident that either Obama or Romney have very distinctive approaches to any of these issues. So, on balance, from the point of view of strictly bilateral interests, it’s a wash between the two candidates. However, when it comes to the wider conduct of U.S. policy across the globe – and India will inevitably feel the effects of such policies – then Obama does seem to be the more prudent figure, less likely to stumble into traps.