K.C. Singh | Dems defy midterms’ rout: Ties with India won’t be hit

The Asian Age.  | K.C. Singh

Opinion, Columnists

For India, the change of balance in the US Congress, total or partial, is unlikely to impact relations with the United States

In early morning pedestrian is silhouetted against sunrise as he walks through the U.S. Flags on the National Mall and past the US Capitol Building in Washington Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, one day before the midterm election will determine the control of the US Congress. (Photo: AP)

The midterm elections to both Houses of the US Congress and for the governorships of several states were held on Tuesday, November 8. Although referred to as the US Congress, America’s legislature is in fact bicameral -- it comprises the House of Representatives, consisting of 435 members, who go to election every two years, while the second chamber is the Senate, with 100 members, of whom only one-third come up for election every two years. The last system is also followed by India’s Rajya Sabha.

Traditionally, the party of serving US Presidents faces setbacks in the midterms as people tend to use the ballot to indicate their angst over economic or other issues. The US Supreme Court, by a majority of 5-4, now dominated by conservative judges, earlier this summer overturned the landmark Roe vs Wade judgment which gave America’s women the right to get abortions. This June 2022 ruling opened the door to some Republican-dominated state legislatures to ban abortions. A backlash by women followed, which was expected to help the Democrats in the November midterms. However, the Ukraine war and China’s zero-Covid lockdowns caused inflation and supply-side dislocation. This has gradually shifted public opinion towards the Republicans.

Recent polls have been projecting that the House was likely to pass to the control of the Republicans. The Senate began to be considered as a toss-up. The midterms are especially important this time as the highly polarised American politics and former President Donald Trump’s hold over the Republicans makes cross-party cooperation extremely difficult. Thus, it cannot be seen as a repeat of President Bill Clinton being able to work with the Opposition even after midterm losses by the Democrats, his own party, back in the 1990s.

The key issues this time have been the economy, abortion after the Roe vs Wade verdict, crime, immigration, etc. But more significantly, the Democrats have been campaigning on the slogan that even “democracy” was on the ballot. Implicit is the shadow of the investigation by the US Congress into the January 6, 2021 rioting on Capitol Hill, with Mr Trump lurking in the background. In fact, he has said he would make an announcement on November 15, perhaps making a bid for a second term. He was clearly timing it to come after Republicans captured convincingly one or both Houses of Congress. That has not happened. 

The House of Representatives has the power to declare war, levy taxes and regulate commerce. Thus, all revenue-related legislation must be initiated by the House. The party that controls the House decides chairs of committees which are crucial to any legislative push. The Senate confirms presidential nominees to Cabinet posts, ambassadorial assignments, federal judges, etc. As it is, the US has been unable to get its ambassador to India approved by the Senate halfway into the Joe Biden presidency. If control of the Senate passes to the Republicans, this would become even more complex. If Republicans seize control of both Houses it could also impact the US assistance to Ukraine in its war with Russia.

There have been reports of Russia again unleashing its social media troll army to tilt US public opinion against the Democrats. Earlier, President Joe Biden was forced to publicly disapprove of the Saudis working with Russia to impose a two million barrel per day production cut by the Opec Plus group of oil producers. Despite the Saudis pleading that this was a logical decision anticipating lower demand, the public spat between the close partners was at worst an attempt to help Trump & Co in the midterms, or at best unconcern about US demarches. The US has threatened to punish Saudi Arabia, perhaps even Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, newly minted Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia.

For India, the change of balance in the US Congress, total or partial, is unlikely to impact relations with the United States. If anything, the BJP is even more comfortable with the Republicans due to their less nosy approach to Indian domestic politics, which with less than 18 months to go till the next Lok Sabha election, is likely to get more majoritarian.

However, US Presidents have enough implicit power to function abroad without congressional benediction. Former President Barack Obama used executive agreements to bypass the need to get treaties approved by the Senate, when under Republican control. The obverse side of that approach is that those agreements can be overturned easily by a successor. That is precisely what President Donald Trump did to the nuclear deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the P5+1 signed in 2015.

The Republicans have been tweaking election procedures in the states they controlled to make interference easier. Considering that a majority of Republican voters still believe that Donald Trump was robbed of victory in 2020, there may be challenges as the counting proceeds. This is especially if a seat or two determines control of the Senate. That can lead to legal or administrative tussles. If the Republicans cannot wrest control of both Houses, it is certain that with Mr Trump threatening to get into campaign mode there shall be more charges of election-tampering.

Brazil has shown a sensible path to the United States. Despite Jair Bolsonaro maintaining that he would reject an election loss, the nation’s institutions and supporters cut him loose when he lost. In the US, the Republican Party has yet to show the same courage and wisdom in handling Mr Trump. Trump-sponsored candidates have not won in sufficient numbers or may even cost the Republicans control of one or both Houses. The challenge from Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, who has been re-elected despite Trump’s baiting, in the presidential primaries in 2023 could derail the Trump wagon.

The European markets hold their breath as the vote counting continues. Clearly, it is not the Republican wave that many were expecting. That weakens the revival of a Trump candidacy in the next presidential election. Projections in four crucial Senate seats are showing an edge for the Democrats. In Georgia, even though the Democrat is leading, if he does not cross 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a runoff. That would knock one seat out of the total 100 total in Senate for the time being. With current Senate tally at 48-48 four seats will determine who controls that chamber, some nail-bitingly close.

In all democracies of the world, the message from the US is important. Will the strongest democracy show its people reject bigotry, xenophobia and autocratic Christian nationalism. Only then will President Joe Biden’s advocacy of democracy globally be able to gain strength.