Women gather to celebrate the victory of US vice-president-elect Kamala Harris, in Painganadu, near the village of Thulasendrapuram in the state of Tamil Nadu, where Harris’ maternal grandfather was born. Photo: Reuters
by Akanksha Singh
by Akanksha Singh

What the Biden-Harris victory means for India and Hindu nationalism

  • If Indians believed US-India relations were on solid ground given the bond between Trump and Modi, what does a Biden-Harris government portend?
  • For Modi, it seems it’s bad news and a political investment gone awry

In the run-up to the US presidential election, Joe Biden’s campaign specifically courted the vote of the Indian-American community.

His vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, who is half black and half Indian, appeared in videos with celebrities of Indian descent – making masala dosas with Mindy Kaling, and chatting with Padma Lakshmi about racial representation – while other South Asian-American celebrities joined the campaign to raise awareness of the importance of voting.
Meanwhile, prayers for both Harris and the incumbent president, Donald Trump, were held in different parts of India.

Before the election, there were concerns that South Asians in the US could be turning politically conservative, a fire seemingly stoked by the growing Hindu nationalism in India.

But if Indians believed the US-India relationship was on solid ground because of the populist bond between Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the question then is: what will become of the bilateral relationship now that Biden and Harris are set to take up the reins?

For Modi, it seems a Biden-Harris government is both bad news and a political investment gone awry. Back in September 2019, Modi visited the US and addressed a crowd of 50,000 Indian-Americans at a “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston.

At the rally, Modi was seen to be endorsing Trump when he adapted his own campaign slogan for the US president, saying “ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” (or “this time, a Trump government”). Similarly, Trump’s inaugural visit to India in February this year featured a two-day “Namaste Trump” rally.


Biden and Harris’ ancestral homes, Ireland and India, celebrate their US presidential win

Biden and Harris’ ancestral homes, Ireland and India, celebrate their US presidential win

Trump’s affinity for Modi is based on their shared right-wing ideology. Although Trump never went so far as to sign a trade deal with India, the two leaders have been quite happy to be perceived as allies.

They each championed nationalism to rise to the highest office in their countries: Modi, with his vision for a Hindu nation, and Trump, with his promise to “Make America Great Again”.

Both leaders also implemented bigoted, Islamophobic policies: Trump’s “Muslim ban”, for instance, blocking travel from the Middle East, and Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act, offering citizenship to migrants of several faiths, except Muslims.

In contrast, Biden has taken a clear stance on this and other issues. Whereas Trump chose not to address the Hindu-Muslim riots sparked by the Indian citizenship law during his tour of Delhi, Biden’s campaign website makes clear that the president-elect is “disappointed” by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act.


Biden’s victory instills fresh hope in Kashmir over revocation of special status

Biden’s victory instills fresh hope in Kashmir over revocation of special status
The Biden campaign has also taken a position on Kashmir, whose special status was revoked by the Indian government last year. The world’s most militarised zone, Kashmir has also been denied access to high-speed internet sporadically, with the latest ban in effect until November 12.

Biden’s campaign website goes as far as to say that “the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir. Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the internet, weaken democracy”.

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But while Biden plans to lift Trump’s freeze on H-1B visas – of which nearly 70 per cent go to Indian nationals – such immigration policy reversals should probably be a two-way street. The Indian government should refrain from moves like denying visas to a US government body that monitors international religious freedom.
It’s especially worth pointing out that Modi himself was denied a visa and banned from the US in 2005 under a law on religious freedom, following his failure in 2002, as chief minister of Gujarat, to stop Hindu riots in which about 1,000 Muslims were killed.

Following the Biden-Harris victory on November 7, Modi congratulated both the US president-elect and vice-president-elect on Twitter.

He praised Biden’s work as vice-president, and tweeted that Harris’ win was “a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis” – a Tamil term of endearment that picks up on Harris’ shout-out to her aunts across the Tamil diaspora during an earlier speech. Modi added: “I am confident that the vibrant India-US ties will get even stronger with your support and leadership.”

Whether Modi chooses to address it or not, India and the US do appear to have one common goal – to monitor and seek to prevent further Chinese expansionism. The India-China border has been rife with tension, following allegations of “provocative military movements” by Chinese forces in August.
For now, sentiment on the ground in India suggests that people have high hopes for Biden and Harris. As people celebrate Harris’ election in her ancestral village, over in Jammu and Kashmir in particular, opposition parties are hopeful that Biden will make good on Kashmir.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to predict whether a Biden-Harris government will be good for India. Perhaps fresh resources and new deals can be taped over old wounds. But the incoming US administration is certainly an indication that right-wing extremism is living on borrowed time.

Akanksha Singh is a writer and culture journalist based in Mumbai, India