As I See It “What India is seeking needs to be prioritised taking into account Trump’s predilections. Issues flowing from his electoral promises are least negotiable. For instance, the H-1 B visas are best left alone except to explain how their tweaking can benefit both nations. Perhaps a promise can be extracted for examination by experts”, says the author.
Public attention this week rivets on the offices of the Presidents of the US and India — the most powerful and the most populous democracies, respectively. The oath of office of both shares a phrase: “will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution….” Despite the Indian President’s role modelled on the British sovereign, the borrowing from the US is deliberate, something the Prime Minister’s oath lacks.
The next President of India’s election assumes importance as not since Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership ended in 1989, has India had a single-party government under an assertive leader ideologically attuned to the RSS. In the last three years, the positioning of individuals with a similar ideological slant in educational, cultural and even scientific institutions indicates a concerted attempt to foist on India a Hindutva model. Who becomes the next President is thus of more than academic interest. It can hasten or check the trajectory towards majoritarianism.
Having finessed the Indian presidential election, PM Modi heads to the US on June 25-26 to handle the mercurial US President. It is not a simple resumption of bilateral engagement from where Trump’s two previous predecessors left it. The new President has signaled retreat from the Asia-Pacific, cavalierly withdrawing from the US initiative for linking 10 select economies via the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His flip-flops on the relevance of NATO, blatant interference in the domestic politics of European allies by his snide remarks about their refugee policy or lauding Britain’s Brexit vote, and finally, his rejection of the Paris climate accord are part of his erratic policy making.
Trump has careened around the world, leaving in his wake controversy, or even turbulence. The first development of concern to India flows from his Riyadh visit on May 25-26 for a summit with principal “Sunni” Arab nations. Saudis marketed it as an alliance to counter Iran and the ISIS. Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif attended the summit. While Trump had been debunking the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran incessantly during his campaign, in Riyadh, he clearly aligned with the Sunni Arabs against it.
On June 5, a fortnight after the Riyadh summit, Saudi Arabia and the UAE led Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen to sever relations with Qatar, alleging terror abetment. Trump instantly lauded action against “funding of radical ideology”. A MSNBC report claimed that Trump was unaware at that stage that Qatar hosts the largest US air base in the region at Al-Udeid with 11,000 servicemen and 100 aircraft. The region split along Shia-Sunni and Arab-non Arab lines as Iran and Sunni Turkey aligned with Qatar. The result is an uneasy stalemate, but US back-pedaled, sending ships for a joint exercise with the Qatari navy and signing a $12 billion arms sale. Saudi King Salman has now replaced the Crown Prince by his own son. This follows the overturning of the earlier succession plan ordained by the late King Abdullah. The widened fissures in the Saudi ruling family augur ill for the region.
The second development is President Trump delegating power to his generals to decide on additional troops for Afghanistan. Currently, 6,700 US troops are training and advising, besides 2,100 are engaged in counter-terror operations. NATO has 6,500 troops for training. The US may now induct another 3,000-5,000 troops. Critics argue that US Presidents must not leave such decisions to generals, but Trump probably chose that methodology as troop enhancement counters his election rhetoric. The more substantive critique is that induction cannot precede clarity about Trump’s Afghan strategy.
Modi sets forth for the US against this unsettled regional background, besides tension with China and Pakistan. Modi’s visit, the media is told, is to establish an equation with Trump. While this is standard desire at summits, but Trump is a transactional being, constantly bargain-hunting. The Chinese managed to neutralize his venom by interposing his family between them and flinging diverse investment offers. Trump veers away from the big strategic picture whenever distracted by the “deal”. The question then is: what does Modi have in his bag to offer?
What India is seeking needs to be prioritised taking into account Trump’s predilections. Issues flowing from his electoral promises are least negotiable. For instance, the H-1 B visas are best left alone except to explain how their tweaking can benefit both nations. Perhaps a promise can be extracted for examination by experts.
Trade imbalance is not as severe as the Sino-US one, but Trump will seek more access to Indian market, particularly the financial and insurance sectors, as indeed concessions on intellectual property. Modi’s “Make in India” and Trump’s “America First” are on the surface paradoxical. The government must have done homework on how to bridge that divide. Linked is the transfer of technology issue, on which two decades of Indian diplomacy was expended to deconstruct US’ technology denial regime created after India’s 1974 nuclear test. The Tata group has reportedly signed a co-production agreement for F-16 aircraft in India. India will have to ascertain whether Trump is even willing to let older generation military hardware be manufactured abroad in exchange for market access.
Trump can also be expected to pay less heed to India seeking NSG membership or reform of the UN Security Council. He may, on the contrary, ask Modi how India can share the security burden of the US. India may be required to clarify its stand on Iran as indeed, in turn, the US must adumbrate its Afghanistan policy. Significantly, the US has dropped the phrase Af-Pak, signifying the de-hyphenation of India from the issue, employing now “South Asia policy”. The danger is, as sounded by the US PR to UN, Nikki Haley, that Trump may argue that Kashmir issue settlement is a condition precedent to an Afghan-Pakistan settlement.
Thus, Modi’s US visit, followed by another trek through a distracted Europe, on the vacuous pretext of lobbying for NSG membership, and eventually the G-20 meeting, where host Germany is preparing to confront Trump with free trade rhetoric, are testing times for Indian diplomacy. That this time there is no Madison Square Garden-level hoopla shows the reality of the xenophobic and anti-globalization US catching up with Modi, the strutting showman. Modi may find the US President less easy to ensnare than Indian presidency.
(The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India)