During call with PM Modi, Biden spoke of ‘strengthening democracy in US, abroad’

The mention of America’s “democratic traditions” is an oblique reference to the election process in the US where President Donald Trump has so far refused to concede.

During his telephone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday night, US President-elect Joe Biden spoke about “strengthening democracy at home and abroad”, words that are being seen as referring implicitly to the current situation in India and in several other parts of the world.

While the Biden-Harris transition team’s readout of the phone call said that Biden raised the issues of “strengthening democracy at home and overseas”, the Indian government’s statement said that “Modi warmly congratulated President-elect Biden on his election, describing it as a testament to the strength and resilience of democratic traditions in the United States”.

The mention of America’s “democratic traditions” is an oblique reference to the election process in the US where President Donald Trump has so far refused to concede.

The difference in emphasis — where the President-elect makes a reference to democracy overseas, and not just in the US, while the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) doesn’t mention that part of the conversation at all — assumes significance in the context of the Biden campaign’s underlining of “shared democratic values: fair and free elections, equality under the law, and the freedom of expression and religion”.

“These core principles have endured throughout each of our nations’ histories and will continue to be the source of our strength in the future,” the Biden campaign document had said.

Read | MEA statement skips reference to ‘democracy abroad’, underlines warm conversation

A former India hand in the Obama-Biden administration, who has been working with the Biden campaign and now with the transition team, told The Indian Express, “The focus of the Biden campaign has been quite clear: that the world’s two oldest and largest democracies have to live by example.”

During the campaign Biden had expressed “disappointment” with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act into law, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (when she was running for the Democratic nomination for President) had said that “we are watching”, and “part of the values of who we are as a nation is we speak out about human rights abuses and when appropriate we intervene”.

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However, South Block feels that the world has changed over the last two decades, and the US administration too has “evolved” under Trump — and that Washington realises that New Delhi does not like being lectured or talked down to.

Indian government sources also noted that the Biden administration, which will take over in January 2021, will also find an India and a geopolitical situation that is very different from January 2017, when the Obama-Biden administration left office. With an aggressive and ascendant China, Washington needs New Delhi in its corner.

Biden’s focus on “democracy overseas” would include China as well.

In that context, New Delhi is relieved that China is “not off the hook” — and Prime Minister Modi and President-elect Biden spoke about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The issues of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccines, and the global economic recovery — all of which have strong China overtones — also featured in the conversation over the phone between the two leaders.

During the phone conversation, Modi referred to his two earlier meetings with Biden in 2014 and 2016. Diplomats said it was a “very warm conversation”.

The MEA said, “The Prime Minister warmly recalled his earlier interactions with Joseph R Biden, including during his official visits to the United States in 2014 and in 2016. Biden had chaired the Joint Session of the US Congress that was addressed by the Prime Minister during his 2016 visit.”

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