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ROAD TO WHITE HOUSE

From America, Mitt love

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For India, a Romney presidency may be a marginal improvement over the Obama one. But that is assuming that an ever-changing Romney remains a centrist.

What would a Mitt Romney presidency of the US be like for India? It depends on which Romney you are talking about. The man has shifted his positions so constantly in the last year that nobody is sure what exactly he stands for. George W Bush's old Republican defence secretary, Colin Powell, says he cannot endorse Romney since he doesn't know which of the many Romneys he would be endorsing.

I suspect Romney will turn out to be a centrist rather than a hard right wing ideologue. He played to the extreme right-wing gallery to win the party nomination, but moved distinctly to the centre in debates with Obama. If he sticks to this as President, he will be a modest improvement on Obama from India's viewpoint.

Romney will be less protectionist, and more willing to grant Indian engineers visas to work in the US. He will be keener on an open world economy, which will suit India. He will be tougher on China and maybe Pakistan too on terrorism. Let's not exaggerate the differences between Romney and Obama on external affairs: their positions overlap a lot. But Republican Presidents have historically been better for India than Democrat Presidents, and that may turn out to be the case again.

Ironically, the Indian public has generally liked Democrats more than Republicans. India is left-of-centre at heart, and many Indians view the Republicans as too pro-business, not pro-poor enough, and too inclined to bully and bomb other countries. Yet vague empathy on socialism has never translated into strong Indian rapport with Democrat Presidents. Why? Democrat Presidents have typically been much tougher on nuclear non-proliferation, and along with Democrat Congressmen have historically sought to penalise India for its nuclear views and ambitions. Democrats have also been much tougher historically on human rights, backing lobbies denouncing India for violations of civil rights in Kashmir, Punjab and in anti-Muslim riots.

It would be wrong to exaggerate inter-party differences on these issues: much Congressional action has always been bipartisan. Besides, these differences have narrowed considerably with the end of the Cold War and rise of Islamic terrorism. During the Cold War, Pakistan was a military ally of the US while India had a quasi-military relationship with the Soviet Union. US politicians were naturally more pro-Pak, and happier to back Pakistan on Kashmir.
But the end of the Cold War ended the old basis for a USPak relationship. Instead, the new US enemy is now Islamic terrorism. Pakistan's links with many terrorist groups have made it look like a US foe. Islamic militants in Kashmir, who were once viewed by some US politicians as freedom fighters, are now viewed as terrorists, to be squashed without mercy.

India's quick rise as an economic power in the last decade was an important reason for President Bush to cultivate India as a potential 21st century counter to Chinese hegemony in Asia. Obama has endorsed this approach, and backed India to become a permanent UN Security Council member. The old notion of treating India and Pakistan on par has been abandoned decisively by both Republicans and Democrats. However, neither India nor the US want to tag China as a future foe: economic cooperation is more likely to ensure peace than tactics to create an anti-China bloc in Asia.

What then will be the main difference that a President Romney makes? The big one is protectionism. Obama has repeatedly attacked Romney for helping outsource jobs to India. This is a gross exaggeration. But Romney is more willing to stand up to US populism on outsourcing. Obama has kept a tight lid of 65, 000 on H1-B visas, of which India's share is only 7 per cent. A President Romney may well expand that limit. Obama has cracked down hard on the issue of other visas like L visas, and emphasised the need to hire Americans, and not Indians, for onsite software work in the US. Romney is likely to be much more relaxed on this score, since he believes in an international division of labour according to comparative advantage.

Obama wants to crack down on US companies that keep a chunk of their profits abroad and invest abroad rather than in the US. India has benefited enormously from US investment in many sectors, notably the IT sector. IBM and Accenture now have more employees in India than in the US. Here again a Romney Presidency will be more friendly to US investment in countries like India.

Romney will be less tough on India than Obama on climate change: the Republicans are frankly skeptical that global warming is a big danger, while Democrats are true believers.

Romney is a big China basher on economic matters and says he will brand it a currency manipulator. It remains to be seen to what extent China adjusts under such pressure. But India will certainly benefit from a stronger yuan that makes Indian exports more competitive, and reduces domestic worries about the dumping of Chinese goods.

However, these policy differences between Romney and Obama are matters of degree rather than of kind. Americans are terribly polarised these days, and supporters of each party think the sky will fall down if the other man wins. But seen from the other side of the globe, the two have much in common. A change in the Presidency will probably make only a slight difference to India. CAVEAT: This entire analysis assumes that of the many faces Romney has adopted during the election campaign, the one he will actually adopt if elected will be the centrist one. If instead he turns into a neo-conservative or aggressive right winger who wants to bomb Iran and send troops to Syria, all bets are off. Right now, that looks improbable.

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