India needs McCain as US President

Which of the three candidates for the US Presidency — Hilary Clinton, Barak Obama, and John McCain — will be best for India? Most Indians would opt for Obama or Clinton. But from a policy viewpoint, McCain would be best for India.

Indians have followed with fascination the Democratic struggle in primaries between Clinton and Obama. Through history, all presidential candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties have been white males. This time, all white males have been eliminated early in the Democratic primaries, and the race is now between a woman and a black.

Indian feminists would love to see Clinton win. The US constitution in 1787 had a noble vision of equality for all humans, yet women did not get the vote till 1920. For a woman to be elected this year would be a US landmark.

However, female rulers are not news at all in South Asia. Every major country in the region has had female rulers — Indira and Sonia Gandhi in India, Begums Hasina and Khaleda in Bangladesh, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and Srimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunge in Sri Lanka.

All these women attained power because they were related to earlier male prime ministers. Hence, they represented a feudal culture of inheritance within powerful families, not of feminists storming male bastions. Hilary Clinton’s rise also owes much to her relationship with a powerful male president. So, a Hilary victory would replicate the South Asian model, with women coming to power via the bedroom door. From a gender viewpoint, that is not an uplifting model.

Far more uplifting would be the election of a black as US president. Blacks entered the US as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. The US Civil War ended slavery, but southern States enacted laws that, by one device or another, prevented most blacks from voting. Only with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s did blacks become full partners in the US democracy. Most Indians passionately supported the US civil rights movement, and so will be delighted with an Obama victory.

John McCain cannot possibly capture our imagination the same way. As a Republican, he carries the odium of being President Bush’s party colleague. Remember, Indian political parties unanimously passed a parliamentary resolution in 2003 deploring the US invasion of Iraq. McCain is a hawk on Iraq, and wants the US forces to stay there almost forever. He is much admired in the US as a Vietnam War hero. But Indians view American soldiers in Vietnam as failed imperialists rather than heroes.

However, what matters for Indo-US relations is not the colour, gender or war record of any presidential candidate. What matters is their position on key bilateral issues. And in this regard, McCain beats Clinton and Obama hollow.

Both the Democrats say they will reduce US troops in Iraq quickly, but not withdraw totally. Both are as hawkish on Iran as McCain. Both are working hard to change the image of the Democrats as being soft on defence and security issues.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is in a limbo after Left Front objections, and can be revived only after fresh elections and fresh rulers in the two countries in November 2008 and May 2009 respectively. Historically, the US nuclear non-proliferation lobby was always dead against Indian nuclear advancement, but President Bush bulldozed his way through these objections to try and create a new Indo-US strategic partnership. McCain as president will be inclined to pursue the Bush line.

However, Democrats have always strongly opposed nuclear proliferation. Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on India for its 1998 nuclear explosion. If the next president is a Democrat, non-proliferators will once again occupy key positions of power. Nuclear specialists in past Democratic regimes, such as Strobe Talbott or George Perkovich, are strongly opposed to the Indo-US nuclear deal. Even if the new president is inclined to go ahead, the non-proliferation lobby will probably attach new conditions — such as curbing economic ties with Iran — that India may find unacceptable.

In matters of trade, Democrats have always been instinctively protectionist. Both Clinton and Obama have sworn to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and have opposed free-trade agreements with Colombia and Korea. The US is slipping into recession, and so protectionist pressures are going to rise sharply. A Democratic president will favour protectionist measures to stop the migration of jobs from the US to emerging markets like India and China. Curbs on Indian software and outsourcing deals can be expected, and the issue of visas to Indian specialists to work in the US will be curbed.

By contrast, McCain is generally in favour of free trade. He will oppose most protectionist measures proposed by the US Congress (which has a Democratic majority) with some determination. He is more likely than any Democrat to offer concessions on agricultural subsidies in the Doha Round negotiations.

Indians find Obama and Clinton more likeable than McCain, but personal likeability is irrelevant in international relations. McCain will be best for India. It’s a pity that he will probably lose.

What do you think?