A Biden presidency means both continuity and change
America’s presidential election on November 3 took pollsters, Democrats and the world by surprise when the early results showed President Donald Trump leading in most swing states, including in the so-called Democratic “Blue Wall” states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Mr Trump had snatched these Rust Belt states from the Democrats in 2016, and their 46 Electoral College votes secured Mr Trump’s victory four years ago.
Former vice-president Joe Biden told his party that as someone born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he could reclaim the wall by bonding with the alienated working class, who had defected to Mr Trump, who in 2016 played on the twin fears of these people. One, deindustrialisation caused by the 1970s’ oil price rise, and then globalisation that stretched supply chains worldwide. China’s manufacturing prowess after joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001 turned global trade upside down. China built huge trade surpluses, while the US expended money on two costly wars abroad. Mr Trump exploited these fears and xenophobia under his “America First” slogan.
The power of his message is clear despite Mr Biden flipping Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and, more significantly, Georgia after three decades of Republican dominance. Of the 150 million votes cast, the heaviest ever, Mr Trump has under half. It signals a deeply divided nation, with one half wedded to a divisive, racist and exclusionist vision. Recounting looms in Georgia, as the voting gap is within the 0.5 per cent difference mandated as a pre-condition. In Pennsylvania, carrying which will take Mr Biden across the 270 mark to victory, with each group of mail-in ballots counted Mr Biden’s lead increases. The main news networks, however, haven’t yet called the election as the uncounted votes exceed Mr Biden’s lead.
There are multiple issues in play. Mr Trump is not only unwilling to concede defeat but maintains, through tweets and otherwise, the false narrative of electoral fraud. He plays on the confusion between in-person votes, which his supporters mostly cast, and legal mailed-in votes mostly going to Democrats. The Democrats advised all, due to the Covid pandemic, to avoid the voting day rush and use mail-in voting. They also feared intimidation by Mr Trump’s followers to suppress the minorities’ votes. Mr Trump realised weeks earlier that those enlisting for mail voting were mostly Democrats, so during electioneering, he started demonising mailed ballots. In the presidential election, the methodology is left to each state, so the procedures vary from one state to another. Many allowed mail-voting or in-person early voting. However, while some allowed counting of this mix of votes simultaneously or early, in many crucial swing states, the Election Day votes were tabulated first. The first reports thus showed Mr Trump leading, which in some states began dissipating as mailed ballots were counted. This Mr Trump decried as fraudulent disappearance of his votes.
This argument doesn’t wash as Republicans have done well to keep Senate control and Mr Trump’s votes exceed his 2016 tally. Mr Biden simply got more votes, breaking existing records. In a similar situation in 2016, Hillary Clinton was advised by then President Barack Obama to concede to avoid uncertainty. But Mr Trump has no adviser with the gravitas of James Baker, who convinced a cornered Richard Nixon that his only good option was to resign after the Watergate scandal. Mr Trump seems to think he can reel-back Arizona, where he’s cutting Mr Biden’s lead, see a turnaround in Pennsylvania as more votes are counted and keep Georgia logjammed in recounts or legal challenges. A protracted standoff, he hopes, can somehow retrieve the situation, maybe by going to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, even senior Republican leaders fear speaking the truth to Mr Trump as they can see his mesmerising grip on a huge electoral base, which many senators have just enchased.
After waiting unsuccessfully for the election to be called, Joe Biden finally addressed the nation. He chose the high road, promising to heal divides, promising to deal with the economy, climate change and the pandemic. He recommended patience, and unlike Mr Trump endorsed the integrity of the electoral process. He assumed the posture of de facto winner by promising to again address the nation the following day. Slowly, senior Republicans are moving away from solidly backing Mr Trump in his unconstitutional statements and unbecoming conduct. If Mr Biden widens his Pennsylvania lead to where it is seen as irreversible and the election is called, the wind may leak out of Trumpian bravado. A Biden presidency appears inevitable.
All nations are observing silently the high theatre in world’s most powerful democracy. A senior BJP leader has written, as head of a party-linked think tank, to indirectly convey the government’s thinking. He incorrectly claims no Republican President lost reelection in a century, forgetting George H.W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. Naturally, he ignores the “Abki baar” slogan Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised in Houston, crossing the line between personal friendship and political endorsement of Mr Trump. He now avows permanence of interests and not friends as the guiding principle.
A Biden presidency means both continuity and change. The basic trajectory of India-US relations will continue, but its momentum will be conditioned by how Mr Biden handles China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Trade ties would not be treated as Mr Trump did by seeking make-or-break solutions. Climate change provides a new area of convergence, which Mr Trump contemptuously ignored. But the Democrats would hold India to a higher standard of liberal democracy than the government in New Delhi is used to. Kamala Harris will remember the insulting treatment of her comrade Pramila Jayapal, convincingly re-elected, by external affairs minister S. Jaishankar. India has an outstanding ambassador in Washington, on a third posting there, having relationships with both sides. But then, as the BJP ideologue wrote, interests can outrank kinship or friendship.