South Asia in the U.S. Presidential Primary Season creative commons creative commons

January 21, 2016: Voluminous reporting filed by political correspondents in key battlefield states suggests that South Asia has not figured in any meaningful way in this year’s contests for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has not offered to build a beautiful wall along the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir. Nor has his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, called for the carpet-bombing of the Pakistan Taliban, let alone of the Maoist Naxalite guerrillas in eastern India. Neither Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton nor her Republican opponent Carly Fiorino has claimed that in seeking to become the first U.S. woman to preside over the White House she is following in the feminine footsteps long since trod in South Asia by such leaders as Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, the Bandaranaikes mere et fille of Sri Lanka, and the “battling begums” of Bangladesh. If the possibility of Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado becoming the Democratic candidate for vice president has aroused any commentators’ interest, it is because his foreign birth would pose the same “natural-born citizen” issue some have raised with respect to his colleague Ted Cruz, not because that foreign birth occurred in India, where his father was posted as a U.S. diplomat. Likewise, any problems senior Maryland Congressman Christopher Van Hollen might face should he aspire to replace Joe Biden would similarly involve that constitutional question, not the fact that he was born in Pakistan, also into an American diplomatic household.

Nor at this early stage does it seem likely that South Asia will figure significantly in the general election, aside from the strong possibility that the nativism, and, more specifically, the disdain for Muslims which are likely to be a feature should Trump get the nomination, could turn off many American voters of subcontinental background. Afghanistan, on the periphery of the South Asian subcontinent could become an issue, as Republicans and Democrats seek to blame one another for the political and security problems the United States faces as the 15-year long war there grinds on. But Democrats and Republicans alike are likely to have only nice things to say about India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to largely avoid making an issue of the challenge Pakistan poses for U.S. policymakers.

Some unanticipated subcontinental crisis could of course end the inattention the contenders seem likely to display toward South Asia on the presidential campaign hustings. Another India-Pakistan war would surely do so. The Republicans would certainly cite it, as they do practically all international events, as further evidence of the Obama administration’s weakness and shortsightedness in foreign and security matters. If Hillary Clinton were the Democratic standard bearer, they would call repeated attention to her failure to head off such a calamity despite her many visits to New Delhi and Islamabad as secretary of state.

Such general bipartisan agreement on South Asia policy—and limited attention to the region by the general public—has not always been the rule. During the Cold War, it was a couple of Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who developed close political and security ties with Pakistan that bound it to the U.S.-led Western bloc. For Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, Pakistan was “one country [of the many he had visited in the Near East and South Asia] that has the moral courage to do its part in resisting Communism.” With the Eisenhower administration’s support, Pakistan under its military ruler Ayub Khan proudly proclaimed itself “America’s most-allied ally in Asia.”   For his part, Ronald Reagan changed the policy of limited support President Jimmy Carter had offered Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (which Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq had famously dismissed as “peanuts”) and welcomed Islamabad as a frontline state in the battle against Communist aggression. Later, after the Cold War ended, it was another Republican president, George W. Bush, who officiated over the “third marriage” between the United States and Pakistan following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

For their part, Democrats in those Cold War years were usually willing to go along with Republican-initiated policies that strengthened U.S.-Pakistan relations, though they often did so with less enthusiasm. They were generally more sympathetic to India than the Republicans. India’s standing as the world’s largest democracy was an important credential, as were its efforts to improve the lot of the downtrodden. But although some Democrats proclaimed themselves great friends of India, New Delhi’s persistent tilt toward the Soviet bloc despite its proclaimed policy of nonalignment limited the degree of support India could muster among U.S. political leaders and the American public before the end of the Cold War helped bring about fundamental changes in U.S.-Indian relations.

As U.S.-India relations were transformed after the Cold War, the new partnership between New Delhi and Washington was embraced by both political parties. With respect to Pakistan, the picture is more complicated. Members of both parties supported building a strategic partnership with Pakistan to achieve a stable future for Afghanistan. But both parties also shared an intense frustration at the challenges of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. In both cases,  differences over policy toward India and Pakistan did not break down along party lines.

A similar transition took place in the party sympathies of Americans of Indian and Pakistani origin. In the Cold War years, Indian-Americans tended to vote for Democrats, Pakistani-Americans for Republicans. But this was hardly set in concrete. Pakistani-Americans provided important financial support to the opponent of GOP Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, the author of legislation cutting off military and economic assistance to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapons program. Indian-Americans contributed generously to Pressler’s campaign. (It is unlikely that many in either camp actually lived in South Dakota or had ever visited there.) The Democratic candidate, Tim Johnson, won the race, to the satisfaction of the Pakistani American community.

In recent years, these stereotypes of party inclinations have become more complicated. One hears the view in India that in light of George W. Bush’s championing of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, U.S. Republicans are now considered more pro-India than Democrats. Americans of Indian descent have been influenced by the same reasoning. They still appear to tilt Democratic, but less strongly so than in past years. Indian-Americans have participated in—and won—more elections in recent years, and the two highest profile examples were both Republicans. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana attempted a run for the presidential nomination but was among the first to pull out of the crowded Republican field, and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina was picked to deliver the party’s response to  President Obama’s State of the Union address.

As for Pakistani-Americans, they reacted strongly against security measures in the George W. Bush years which they believed victimized Muslims, and this was probably reflected in their voting patterns. More broadly, Indian and Pakistani Americans have reportedly adopted voting patterns more like those of people from other ethnic groups with similar incomes and similar social attitudes. As we have noted, such “normal” patterns could come under serious strain for Pakistani Americans and other Muslim voters should The Donald or some other perceived Islamophobe win the GOP nomination.

South Asia Hand will be following the progress of the 2016 election and its implications for U.S. relations with the region. So stay tuned.

Howard and Teresita Schaffer

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