American President Donald Trump’s much-hyped 36-hour visit to India and all that went with it, was unprecedented and perhaps historic. The Government of India accorded him a welcome, hospitality and attention which befitted an Emperor in royal times, so much so that Trump could perhaps say like the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar said in a letter to his Senate, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’, (I came, I saw, I conquered).
He could say so, as a transactional man that he is, he sold $3 billion worth of military helicopters. Can Prime Minister Narendra Modi claim similar success out of this visit, having invested so much energy and resources? Can he say that we have cemented the partnership with the biggest democracy and world’s mightiest power and have paved the way for a greater national interest in India-US friendship, in times to come? It is in order that we assess such claims.
The growing closeness between New Delhi and Washington is attributed to the ‘excellent equation’ between Trump and Modi. Admittedly, at present times, even democracies are leadership based. If a leader is decisive, visionary and sincere, democracies thrive and countries prosper, and if the leadership is weak and indecisive, even if the party has the majority, the growth and governance of a country can nosedive. From that perspective, the Indo-American relationship should be rocking, as both leaders seem to segue well with each other.
During the visit, I was in communication with a NRI in US who is a big Trump fan and a part of his think tank. I asked him what he thought of the visit and how was the echo in US of the racous rally at Motera Stadium, Gujarat. He replied: “Fantastic, mark my words Trump is India’s best friend. He does, however, very smartly give lip service to the Chinese and their allies like Pakistan”! He elaborated on why Trump and Modi would work very well together.
In addition to personal warmth for each other, he said, “Trump is for peace through strength and believes among other things in strong military, lower taxes, minimum bureaucracy, strong borders, merit based immigration, confronting terrorism, fair trade, open market access, conservative judiciary, energy independence, God and capitalism. Most of these issues resonate with Modi”. Additionally, “Trump’s opponents Bernie Sanders and others are 100 per cent in other direction. That is why he is India’s best friend along with Israel”.
To the question why China was not discussed this visit, he said “Beijing is always the reference point in this new phase of relations with India. It has been always so, but more now as China has grown and challenges US”. He reassuringly said “America is suspicious of China but not of India. Secondly, America (Trump) likes to be Number 1 always, he will allow others to be No.2, but do not threaten his No. 1 position. China is not happy to be No. 2, so that’s the problem. India is happy to be No.2, hence is pivot to India.”
“Does Trump believe in the apparent American strategic goal in India-Pacific, i.e. to build India as a counterweight to China”? He said, it is already happening, military alliance is getting stronger. India’s Chief of Defence Staff is reorganising the military for conflict readiness”.
Not convinced, I probed further, “Is Trump unhappy that India is not helping militarily in Afghanistan to facilitate American withdrawal promised by him”? Is that also why Trump is still sympathetic and friendly with Pakistan who has a handle on Afghanistan? He said, “India’s military engagement in Afghanistan would have been nice but not necessary. The folks in Afghanistan need to live among themselves in whatever form they like, tribes, political parties, warlords, whatever, so long as they do not hide terrorists or export terror”.
My last question: “Is Trump seeking to offset the small trade deficit with India by pumping arms into a developing country like ours”? He was clear that Trump loves big markets for American goods and economic wars. However, he always wants a strong military if you threaten him or his trading markets. That is why he is building Indian military before he expands his market in India.
One may take it or challenge these opinions on Trump’s political and economic predilections coming from a NRI supporter. However, leadership in any country is not permanent, neither Modi’s nor Trump’s. Modi will be at the helm for 4 years more. But Trump’s first term ends in November, although by most predictions and by US traditions many presidents have got second term. In fact, his visit may well be timed to help him reach out to the 4 million-odd Indian Americans back home. In any case, the much-awaited India-US trade deal has been put off until Trump’s second term. If he loses the elections, the deal may lapse into limbo.
That brings us to the second assumption, whether India-US relations are merely leadership-driven or are there institutional mechanisms and alignment of national interests in this part of the world and elsewhere. It has been famously said, “Nations have no permanent friends, or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. So beyond Modi and Trump how is the relationship shaping? Evidently, both nations have elaborate institutional structures to conduct their national and international affairs. So even if the leadership changes, the structures should maintain continuity.
Recently, some 52 mechanisms have been developed to conduct Indo-American dialogues. Besides, Washington always wanted to support New Delhi viz Beijing. As I said in my column last week that India, since Nehru’s time, had spurned American overtures of friendship. US and India, two biggest multicultural democracies, have come together in wake of the huge growth of China threatening American supremacy, and the rapid decline of former USSR weakening its support-links with India. Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too made a huge contribution to Indo-American ties by signing the nuclear deal with George Bush (Junior). He even risked the coalition government led by his party. That proved a turning point. Modi befriended Barack Obama and Trump with his ‘charm’ diplomacy. But there is certainly a new-found growing proximity between India and US.
At the delegation levels this visit a broad range of issues was discussed – defence cooperation, enhancing Quad, cross-border terrorism, dairy, drugs, energy cooperation, etc. What was disappointing was the lack of any trade deal, mini or big. Trump said, “They are working on a very major trade deal, biggest ever made, incredible trade deal”. He is known for his big talk and even diplomatic gaffes. But, he knows and America should know, without a trade deal, without building the Indian economy, it cannot expect India to counter China for it. Trump pledged American friendship and loyalty to India. He made an emphatic statement on Indo-Pacific, “together we will defend our sovereignty, security and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific region for our children and for many generations to come”. This could have had a message for China.
However, there are a few downsides to this hyperbolic bonhomie. One, Modi’s government seems to fumble on tackling China and bargaining with America on this strategy. Two, Indians, at the back of their minds, may be wary of American interventionism, and ironically of Trump’s isolationism so-called the America first policy. Three, New Delhi has no offer on securing Afghanistan after America’s withdrawal. Four, Modi’s handling of other issues like Kashmir, CAA, NRC may spill over to strategic partnership. Remember, Trump keeps referring to Kashmir, to perhaps put New Delhi on its feet; why can’t India flaunt Chinese competition with and threat to US. Five, New Delhi must hasten a trade deal with US using the China handle. New Delhi’s prevarication on Beijing is the biggest break on India-America relations.
Despite the successful emotional appeal to America with India’s history, heritage and culture, Modi needs to eliminate the downsides for a steadier and a mutually beneficial partnership.