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What Might Happen To U.S.-India Relations Under A President Biden

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

As we approach the U.S. election, our international correspondents are looking at what the Trump presidency has meant for governments around the world. Today we take you to India, where President Trump has forged a relationship with that country's Hindu nationalist prime minister. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports on what a change at the White House could mean to the deepening relationship between the U.S. and India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Namaste. Namaste.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: President Trump held a rally with Prime Minister Narendra Modi just before the pandemic at a cricket stadium in Modi's home state. And before that, he hosted the Indian prime minister for a Howdy Modi rally in Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: Howdy, my friends.

FRAYER: Modi and Trump are both nationalists who've both been accused of discriminating against minorities, and they've had each other's backs. Trump's visit to Delhi coincided with anti-Muslim riots, which Trump was pressed to confront Modi about.

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TRUMP: We did talk about religious freedom. And I will say that the prime minister was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom.

FRAYER: Trump has been inclined to take Modi's word over that of human rights groups and the United Nations, who have noted a spike in hate crimes under Modi's Hindu nationalist rule.

BIDISHA BISWAS: I think a Biden-Harris administration would speak up more.

FRAYER: Bidisha Biswas is a political scientist at Western Washington University. She notes how Sen. Kamala Harris in the Democratic primaries was asked about Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority region, where the government has jailed politicians and protesters.

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KAMALA HARRIS: They are not alone, and we are all watching because so often when we see human rights abuses...

FRAYER: That mere mention of Kashmir rattled India's political establishment. But Biswas says Harris's comments were actually in line with the positions of previous U.S. administrations.

BISWAS: I don't think a Vice President Harris is going to upset that. And what she said about Kashmir honestly was a pretty mild statement, and it was pretty consistent.

FRAYER: In fact, there's been a pretty consistent trend toward closer U.S.-India ties for decades, says Akriti Vasudeva at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington.

AKRITI VASUDEVA: Since the George W. Bush administration, the United States has recognized India's potential as a natural balancer to China. It's been a proponent of the U.S.-India relationship due to India's strategic location, its potential as a market.

FRAYER: Joe Biden has been part of that very U.S. foreign policy establishment for decades. He issued a video this year on India's Independence Day.

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JOE BIDEN: We share a special bond that I've seen deepen over many years. As a U.S. senator and vice president, I've watched it deepen.

FRAYER: Biden promises to deepen ties on defense and trade, possibly without the tariffs Trump has imposed. He'd also restart cooperation on clean energy, which Trump dropped when he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. There is one signature Trump issue - immigration - that could be tricky for Biden. Trump sought to protect U.S. jobs by limiting H-1B visas for skilled workers. Indians are the biggest recipients.

Kashish Parpiani is with the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai.

KASHISH PARPIANI: Biden has promised that he's going to expand H-1B, and I think we are going to take that with a pinch of salt. Are you really telling me that an American economy that is under strain because of the pandemic, with 30 million people losing jobs, a Biden administration would prioritize expansion of foreign worker programs like the H-1B? I don't think that's going to be a priority.

FRAYER: Not every Trump policy is likely to be overturned by a possible Biden administration. If Biden were to raise the issues of human rights, Kashmir or the environment, he's likely to do so in a way that does not jeopardize ever-closer ties with India, which are in both countries' interests.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.