Trump has his obsessions, but so has Modi.
Indian and American officials have been burning the midnight oil to ensure a positive outcome of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talks with US President Donald Trump. They should be successful because, leaving aside relatively minor disputations, India remains an area where the new and difficult US President does not have strong views.
Yes, in pulling out of the Paris climate deal, he lumped us with other countries as freeloaders. He has complained about India — along with China, Japan and Mexico — taking away American jobs, but he has also declared his friendship with India and Modi, albeit at an Indian-American fundraiser last October.
Having roiled relations with Europe and causing dismay among allies in the Asia Pacific by cosying up with China, Trump also needs to show the US can retain and strengthen important partnerships. So, there is the first White House dinner of the administration, to show that US-Indian relations are indeed special.
But given a “what’s in it for me” incumbent in the White House, the tone of the conversation will be one where India will demonstrate the many ways it is of benefit to the US, rather than a country seeking an indulgence here or a favour there. It will pitch India as an indispensable partner of the US, both in countering China in the Asia Pacific and in dealing with Islamic radicalism. Further, it will showcase itself as an important market for the US defence industry. The expected sale of 22 Guardian drones is being hyped, though they are primarily used by the US Coast Guard and Border Protection Service.
Trump and his aides will no doubt use the occasion to press India in an area in which we are not too comfortable: market access and removal of trade barriers. In a letter to Trump on the eve of the Modi visit, four powerful legislators have outlined the American case. This is an area close to Trump’s heart, since it affects American jobs and businesses. So, Modi may find the going a bit uncomfortable, but it would be surprising if he goes into the conversation without being prepared. There is a glaring clash of visions in Trump’s ‘America First’ promise of restoring US primacy in manufacturing and Modi’s Make in India plan. There is also a trio of issues — the H1B visas, climate change and the attacks on foreigners, including Indians in the US — which may not come up in the discussions, but forms an overhang on them.
Trump has his obsessions, but so has Modi, and in recent times, one of them has been Pakistan. In almost every speech abroad, Modi has never ceased to denounce Pakistan either by name or indirectly, for supporting terrorism.
Inserting Pakistan into the counterterror and Islamic radicalism conversation will have to be a careful exercise and will most likely be woven into the narrative of the positive role India has played in stabilising Afghanistan in coordination with the US.
There are still many imponderables that go beyond the Trump-Modi meet or the binary India-US equation. These relate to Europe, East Asia or the Middle East where Trump-led disruptions could have serious consequences for India. A breakdown of the US-China relationship is as consequential as a possible condominium between them, a conflict with Iran would be devastating for India’s energy security and geopolitical goals. But today’s conversation is likely to be bilateral.
Good relations with the US are important for India. But New Delhi has locked itself into a hostile relationship with China and Pakistan, losing significant room for manoeuvre. Modi may be a tad overinvested in Washington even though he claimed merely to have overcome the “hesitations of history”. India’s potential, both as a security actor and an economy, has kept the US engaged so far. But the Trump approach could be a demand to “show the colour of [our] money.”
If Trump had been a normal president, it would have been fairly easy to predict that, given the upward trajectory of Indo-US relations, this will be an important visit. But his tendency to take contrary stances, peremptorily overrule line departments and reveal policy stances through tweets makes prediction hazardous.
One thing seems clear, Trump actually gets along well with tough guy leaders like Modi. Witness his attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or for that matter, Xi Jinping. This could be the real prize of the visit. If he establishes good chemistry with Trump, the other details could always be filled in later.
This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).