Midterm Polls: What the results mean for the US and for India

By Sachin Kalbag

Sachin Kalbag

It’s Sunday, November 13 as I write this piece on the US midterm polls, and with the Nevada Senate race declared, the Democrats are not only heaving a sigh of relief, they are celebrating. The Blues are 50-49 in the Senate, and even without the Georgia runoff in December (which will likely go their way), they have retained their majority in the upper house of Congress (Vice-President Kamala Harris has the tiebreaking vote).

UPDATE (11.30pm EST, Nov 15): Several media outlets have called the Arizona gubernatorial race in favor of Democrat Katie Hobbs, who has defeated Republican Kari Lake.

The predicted Red Wave did not lash America, after all.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have all but wrested control of the House of Representatives. They are leading 214-210 according to CBS News on Sunday night (218 gives them the majority), and current leads show that they will end up with 222 seats in the 435-seat House, the same number held by the Democrats in the previous Congress. It’s an exact flip.

President Joe Biden’s party overcame his low personal popularity numbers (an approximately 38% approval rating before the elections) to prevent a predicted Red Wave. This is sort of unprecedented, given that, historically, most Presidents have lost quite comprehensively in the midterms.

What does all of this mean for India? Should India look closely at these elections from a foreign policy lens? Not really, but there will be some specific impact as we shall see in a while.

The US midterms have always been about domestic issues; the 2022 edition was no different. Inflation, jobs, fuel prices, high rates of interest and abortion rights were the main talking points for the national candidates, not the conflict in Ukraine or the tense China-Taiwan situation. Or, for that matter, North Korea’s provocative missile launches in the direction of South Korea and Japan.

In fact, America’s relations with India did not feature as a talking point even among Indian American candidates, who focused on community issues, inflation and job creation as their primary election themes.

A Democrat-Republican split of the Senate and House means that Biden’s legislative agenda will be somewhat thwarted. The chances of deadlock on several issues are real. Since a bill needs to be passed by both houses of Congress for it to be sent to the President for consideration to pass it into law, the disagreements will likely pile up.

In theory, bills must have the exact same wording for both houses of Congress. But this rarely happens in practice. To bring the bills into alignment, a Conference Committee is convened, consisting of members from both chambers. The members of the committee produce a conference report, intended as the final version of the bill. Each chamber then votes again to approve the conference report.

Depending on where the bill originated, the final text is then enrolled by either the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate, and presented to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate for their signatures. The bill is then sent to the President.

This process was introduced to build in checks and balances before any law in passed. However, with Republicans and Democrats not seeing eye to eye on almost every major issue including immigration, abortion, job creation and minimum wage, a logjam is a certainty. Not that it has not happened earlier, but the dialog between the two parties has not been as fractured as it has been in the Donald Trump era.

Therefore, most bills will end up being a compromise between the two parties, and not as originally intended. India will be affected by this as I will explain later.

There are two major global issues in which a stalemate is a certainty – climate change and the war in Ukraine (the latter is where India’s diplomatic strength and guile will be put to test). The one issue that will impact India the most is immigration.

Let’s take climate change first. Democrats are pro-legislation in order to mitigate the impact of climate change. Republicans, on the other hand, are mostly climate change deniers, and have repeatedly said they will not support funding for alternative fuels. This is likely to impact the American stance on a global alliance to slow down or possibly reverse climate change.

The Reds are also pro-stricter immigration laws. It is here that Indians will be affected. In any case, the visa-issuing gridlock has not been resolved, with some visa appointments taking more than a year – or even two – to fructify.

Republican control of the House would mean that for the next two years, there will be little or no progress on immigration issues. If (and this is a big if) the Biden administration wants to bring in a more liberal immigration regime (one that will favour skilled Indian workers for the H-1B and L1 categories), there is no way the Republicans are going to lend their support.

A Republican majority House and a 50-50 or a Democratic 51-49 distribution in the Senate will also pave the way for a more divided America, with former President Donald Trump – who is no friend of the law – provoking grassroots action from his followers to disrupt the investigation into the January 6 Capitol Hill riots. The absence of a Red Wave and the rise of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the Republican realm as a legitimate challenger to Trump for the 2024 party ticket will not prevent the former President from trying to incite his supporters.

In the meanwhile, Biden was quick to wave the truce flag with the Republicans, even while trying to keep his head high. In a press conference last week, he said November 8 was “a good day for democracy” and that he is “ready to work with Republicans”.

He knows why he is doing this. A Republican majority in the House would mean that they have the power to initiate multiple investigations against the Biden administration. There are four issues on which the Republicans are likely to trouble the Biden White House.

One, his son Hunter Biden’s business relations with China. Two, the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting chaos and erosion of human rights. Three, the lack of any deep investigation into the alleged origins of the coronavirus in a Chinese lab. And four, Biden’s immigration policies.

In the last two years, there has been substantive legislation on climate change, healthcare and social security – all three issues on which the Republicans don’t see eye to eye with the Democrats. Close victories or not, GOP members will try to make Biden’s remaining two years difficult, if not hellish.

And yes, Biden can say goodbye to any legislation on abortion, immigration, and healthcare.

Ukraine will also dominate the Republican-Democrat dynamic, in that the GOP is likely to ask tough questions that could put Biden in a spot. The Biden administration has not, at least overtly, pressured India into changing its stance on the Ukraine situation. India continues to buy cheap oil from Russia and remains one of its main strategic defence partners.

With Republicans wresting control of the House, and the Senate remaining in deadlock, the Biden administration will be forced to get a favourable response from India as a quid pro quo for support for some legislation (remember the Conference Committee process detailed above?).

In effect, the next few days will be crucial for both the US as well as for India, especially on Ukraine where New Delhi will be tested the most.

Sachin Kalbag, a journalist turned policy wonk, is currently Senior Fellow at Takshashila Institution and a former Foreign Correspondent based in Washington, DC

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