Former Vice President and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has often boasted of his considerable foreign policy experience, having served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and played an active role in the Obama administration’s foreign policy making. Throughout the 2020 primary, however, Biden’s foreign policy agenda rarely featured. A closer look reveals significant cause for concern. While Biden seeks to show that his foreign policy platform would be more progressive than that of Trump’s, his record has weak spots when it comes to far-right Indian nationalism.
From his past remarks on US-India deals to his campaign’s controversial appointment of a supporter of Modi, and his history of taking financial contributions from defense contractors and lobbying firms tied to the Indian government, there is reason to be skeptical of a Biden administration’s India policy.
A brief examination of Biden’s policy record reveals that his problematic stances on India are not new. As a senator, Joe Biden voted to approve the 2008 United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-proliferation Enhancement Act, a measure that many progressives who prioritized nuclear nonproliferation, including Bernie Sanders and Barbara Lee, opposed. In a speech at the Bombay Stock Exchange in 2013, Biden remarked on his involvement in strengthening the US-India partnership. “Although we are already helping India meet its military needs –we can significantly increase our defense cooperation by what it already is…” A year after, India imported $1.9 billion in military equipment from the US, becoming the “biggest foreign buyer of US weapons.”
More recently, Biden’s campaign came under fire for its decision to hire Amit Jani, a strong supporter of the extreme right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the director of outreach to the Asian-American Pacific Islander community. News of this appointment spurred outrage among Muslim activists and South Asian progressives given the Modi regime’s history of discriminatory and violent actions targeted against Muslims. After weeks of backlash, the Biden campaign appointed Farooq Mitha, a former Hillary Clinton aide, as a senior advisor on Muslim American engagement. However, according to the Middle East Eye, “Jani will continue in his current role as the campaign’s Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) national vote director.” This is a clear sign that the Biden campaign has failed to recognize the seriousness of the Modi government’s abuses and casts doubt on a Biden administration’s willingness to take them seriously once in office.
According to FEC records, senior employees and executives of top defense contractors, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, contributed to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. On February 10, 2020, the U.S. State Department decided to approve a possible foreign military sale of an Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) to India for an estimated cost of $1.867 billion. Raytheon is one of the program’s two principal contractors. In the same month, India’s cabinet secured a $2.6 billion naval helicopter deal with Lockheed Martin.
Lawrence Rasky, an Obama bundler and former chairman of Rasky Partners, a lobbying firm working with Raytheon (among other defense contractors), contributed $3,500 to Biden. (Rasky recently passed away two months ago due to COVID-19). Rasky was also a former Biden aide who helped create Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC. His wife, Carolyn Rasky, gave $1,000. The Biden campaign has also received a $2,025 donation from Rasky Partners’ vice president Marianne Smith, along with a $2,800 contribution from its George Cronin, managing director of public affairs.
Vivek Lall, the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin, donated $2,800 in 2019. Lall has played an instrumental role in securing US-India defense deals Additionally, Joe Rice, Director of Government Affairs at Lockheed Martin, donated $2,800 last year. Pamela Wickham, Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Raytheon, contributed a total of $8,000 to Biden from 2019-2020. Michael Nachshen, Lead on International Communications at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, donated $1,605. Biden has also taken significant sums from donors at firms that advocate on the Indian government’s behalf. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck is among the Republic of India’s top five lobbying registrants. When not representing the Indian government, it is advocating on behalf of clients like Amazon, CITGO Petroleum Company, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.
Brownstein Hyatt shareholders Alexandra Metzl and Frank Schreck (who is also chair of the Gaming Law Group), both contributed $2,800 to the Biden campaign. Four additional shareholders donated $500-$505 to Biden.
Cornerstone Government Affairs (formerly known as the Podesta Group) is also among the Indian government’s top five registrants. Todd Webster, a senior vice president at CGA, donated $5,000 to Biden’s American Possibilities PAC. Before working at CGA, Webster was chief of staff to Senator Chris Coons, Biden’s successor, and now lobbies for several Fortune 500 companies, including Boeing, Citigroup, Google, Microsoft, and Cheniere Energy.
It is also important that we look at Obama personnel who were involved in the US-India defense deals. Richard Verma, former US Ambassador to India under the Obama administration, donated $2,800. Verma oversaw several meetings between Obama and Modi, supporting the strengthening of bilateral cooperation with India in defense, trade, and clean energy. Similarly, former US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spearheaded the deepening of US-India defense coordination even after Modi’s BJP came to power. Positions such as these will be particularly important in the next administration’s handling of India policy.
Amid the Modi government’s crackdown in Kashmir and its efforts to strip millions of Muslims of their Indian citizenship, how the next administration handles the United States’ relationship with India will be a pressing question. The Biden campaign’s ties to defense contractors profiting from contracts with the Indian government, lobbying firms hired by the Modi government, and pro-Modi figures, are all concerning signs for the policies his administration would adopt.
Last December, Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, introduced House Resolution 745: Urging the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents. In response, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, called off a meeting with members from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and other lawmakers, including Jayapal. Nonetheless, lawmakers must work together to hold the Indian government accountable for its actions against Kashmiris.
Given Biden’s decision to bring on campaign hires such as Jani, close attention must be paid to the campaign’s potential executive branch appointees. A Biden administration must center clear demands on behalf of India’s Muslim population in its dealings with Modi’s India.