In about two months the United States will have elected its new president. It is still not clear whether the eventual winner will be Al Gore or George W. Bush. Till recently, nearly every opinion poll had Bush leading Gore by more than ten points, and many analysts had almost assumed that the Republicans would return to power after eight years.
But that judgment seems to have been made prematurely, and the Democratic convention has lead to a major swing for Gore. Some opinion polls now have the Gore-Lieberman ticket running ahead of the Bush-Cheney one. On present evidence, this presidential election may be one of the closest in American history.
It is one of the ironies of American politics that despite the fact that the American people are generally experiencing unprecedented prosperity -- and economic issues normally dominate most U.S. elections -- it is by no means certain that Gore, despite this latest surge in his favor, will occupy the Oval Office next January.
Political pundits attribute this contradiction to two factors. First, public exhaustion (and disgust) with the controversies that surrounded Bill Clinton during his two terms, especially the sex scandal with Monika Lewinsky. Second, Gore's own lack of charisma.
While Gore is a gifted cerebral politician with an impeccable background and with fine political training, he lacks the warmth, the color and the verve to reach out to people who do not share his background.
The added irony is that had Clinton himself been running again, which is prohibited by the American constitution, he may have won again. The reason is simple. There has been rarely in any political arena a politician so brilliant as Clinton, or as charismatic as him.
We Indians cannot rubbish this. Recall the impact of Clinton's address to the joint session of the two houses of Parliament. Our parliamentarians nearly mobbed him and were clearly in such great awe of Clinton that one analyst suggested that had the American president asked the lawmakers to sign the CTBT then and there they would have done so without raising an eyebrow.
In other words, Gore is burdened by the Clinton legacy, but does not have the personal charm of the incumbent president to be able to transcend the controversies that surrounded the White House during the last eight years.
Not surprisingly, Gore has chosen Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, is regarded as the moral conscience of the United States and was a strident critic of Clinton during the Lewinsky saga.
But which will be better for India? A Democratic administration led by Gore or a Republican one under Bush?
In many ways, Gore is going to be more predictable. His stance on most issues is well known, and even leaders of other countries have become familiar with his style of working. But is this enough? True, there will be a greater continuity to the U.S-India dialogue if there is a Gore administration, but it will be without the benefit of individuals whose personal interest made all the difference.
It is highly unlikely that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot, for instance, will find a place in a Gore government. Talbot is a brilliant analyst, and has a fine understanding of the politics of arms control, but he was in government because of his close personal friendship with Clinton, which goes back to their Oxford days when both of them were Rhode Scholars at the University.
Gore, who probably recognizes Talbot's qualities, will still not keep him because of the overwhelming need to demonstrate that he is his own man and that the Clinton days are finally over.
Let us also be clear that it was Talbot who demonstrated the sensitivity and sophistication to not only engage India in a meaningful dialogue, but also to develop a personal relationship with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, which was vital to furthering Indo-US relations.
Without Talbot, it may well mean a return to the bad old days of absolutist positions, especially on the nuclear issue. Make no mistake: the Gore camp is full of the same kind of non-proliferation 'wallahs' who have been the bane of Indo-US relations through most of the 1990s.
In addition, Gore comes with the huge baggage of environmental issues, which might translate into problems in trading relations with developing countries and may even see the possible introduction of environment-related non-tariff barriers.
Add to this list the bleeding-heart liberals (so close to Gore) concern for human rights in Kashmir and elsewhere, and you may have the perfect recipe for a disastrous U.S.- India relationship under a Gore administration.
Where will US-India relations go under a Bush administration? Although it is difficult to chart a definite course, there seems to be some evidence that the Republicans may locate the relationship on a firmer ground. There are at least three reasons for this optimism.
First, the Republicans are more concerned about the future of China, and its possible emergence as a belligerent and revisionist superpower that will seek to challenge American influence and power, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Many Republicans are beginning to recognize that India, with its own deep concerns about China, could be one vital counter weight to the Dragon. This may mean that a Republican administration will be more sensitive to Indian security concerns, and more willing to accommodate India's own aspirations to be a great power.
Second, the Republicans, although no less concerned about proliferation of nuclear weapons, may have a less absolutist view of India's nuclear policy. Most important, given their own skepticism about the CTBT, the pressure for India to sign the treaty is bound to ease considerably.
Finally, while Bush may not have a great understanding of foreign policy, his team of foreign policy advisors is amongst the most scholarly and analytical in the U.S. This includes the former Stanford Professor, Condolisa Rice, and Richard Haas of the Brookings Institution. Both Rice and Haas have a healthy respect for India, and recognize the importance of forging a close strategic partnership with New Delhi.