How India-US relations could change after the 2024 elections

While ties will continue to be strengthened, a second term for either Biden or Trump will pose different challenges for New Delhi

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden in New Delhi in September 2023. AFP
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This year the US and India are both holding national elections, the outcomes of which will shape the trajectory of relations between the two nations for at least half a decade. Barring a surprise, victory appears likely for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party in the Indian general election, while the outcome of the US presidential race is a toss-up.

Voters in both countries are choosing more than just a leader or party; they are also voting between markedly different styles of interaction with the rest of the world. But just how different would the relationship between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden be from the one between Mr Modi and Mr Biden’s primary challenger, Donald Trump? Mr Modi has worked with both presidents, and Indo-American relations have been strengthened under both administrations. However, the trends suggest that while the points of convergence between the two governments in both cases will probably be similar, the points of friction will differ significantly.

This is important, given the gradual shift in the centre of gravity of the relationship between the two countries.

For more than a decade, the force driving increased Indo-American co-operation was a shared concern about China’s increasing strength and assertiveness. But now India is the fastest-growing large economy in the world, while China is seen by some countries as an increasingly risky investment destination. As a result, Wall Street is making big bets on India, viewing it as an exciting new frontier. New Delhi is keen to facilitate this, given its goal to become the world’s third-largest economy before the end of the decade.

In other words, the business and financial sectors in both countries are counting on each other to generate the growth and development they need. Shifting the driver from government to the private sector means that the relationship is likely to be less sensitive to who is in power in Washington and New Delhi. This growing economic interdependence is also constructive because it frees the relationship from a reliance on shared reactions to third parties such as Beijing.

The Indo-American strategic partnership is growing beyond a shared suspicion of China

Secondly, the strategic partnership is growing beyond a shared suspicion of China.

Both countries depend on security in the Indian Ocean region. But with neither power able to manage the challenges – ranging from piracy to disaster relief, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, extremism and cybersecurity – on its own, they have increasingly come to rely on each other. India’s growing use of American weapons systems is also creating its own dynamic, deepening and broadening contact between the two militaries, while increasing interoperability.

These avenues have managed to offset some areas of difference, such as India’s energy relationship with Russia and its official position of neutrality on the Ukraine war.

As noted earlier, however, there are also likely to be serious differences during a second Trump or Biden term, but these differences will be specific to the ideological commitments of the two contenders.

For Mr Trump, the sticking point will undoubtedly be trade. Both he and Mr Modi are promising to revive their countries’ manufacturing sectors to bring economic security to their working-class masses. The difference, though, is that Mr Modi is counting on doing it through an increase in exports (that is, free trade), while Mr Trump has a strong preference for protectionism.

The Indo-US trade deal foundered on these rocks during Mr Trump’s first term. And while the Biden administration has entered into deals with New Delhi, Mr Trump has shown his willingness to walk away from agreements signed by his predecessors. Some of the progress made, therefore, could very well be undone, without any guarantees of success in the renegotiation process.

More Indian firms than ever are looking to the US as a source of technology and customers, not just investment. A second Trump term would probably slow the pace of India’s integration into US supply chains. This would be an enormous opportunity cost for India in particular.

Another sticking point in a second Trump term is likely to be migration. The former president is in favour of reducing all immigration to the US, including highly skilled workers. This is something that will especially affect India with its large reservoir of university graduates and sizeable first-generation diaspora. Senior figures within the Trump circle have even publicly expressed concerns about the number of Indian-born chief executives, particularly in the tech sector.

Given that India’s most serious unemployment problem is among university-educated urban youth, curbs on foreign recruitment could have economic ramifications. It is also likely to have an adverse impact on US favourability in Indian public opinion, which in turn could pose problems for New Delhi’s security policy alignment with Washington.

On the other hand, a second Biden administration could experience increased frictions with a third Modi term over what can broadly be classed as “values”. Although Mr Modi is enormously popular in large parts of India, his governance style has polarised opinion in the country on a range of issues, from neoliberal economic reforms to crackdowns on opposition parties to overt religiosity in the public sphere.

These are issues that greatly trouble the progressive wing of Mr Biden’s Democratic Party, as well as liberal American institutions. Although the Biden administration, like the Modi government, has worked hard to insulate the strategic relationship from some of the wedge issues, the fundamental difference in ideological perceptions between the two governing parties’ voter bases will be hard to avoid. Any criticism of New Delhi will be seen by Modi supporters as an affront both to their leader and to their country.

In contrast, a second Trump administration is unlikely to express any opinion at all on cultural and social issues, unless it involves India’s evangelical Christian communities.

Given these circumstances, America’s relationship with India could increasingly come to resemble its relationships with some of its allies and partners in the Middle East, wherein deep economic and security ties coexist with seemingly intractable political differences. This is a situation where a mix of personal relations and mutual strategic dependence forms the basis of a long-term, world-shaping partnership.

However, what the path towards such a partnership is going to look like is far from set right now – it isn’t something to be negotiated by diplomats at summits but, rather, by voters at the ballot box over successive elections.

Published: May 08, 2024, 7:00 AM