A strategic play
Trump’s visit to India must be seen as part of a larger effort by Prime Minister Modi to inculcate a personal relationship with the American leader
When President Donald Trump boisterously claimed that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised him that an estimated seven million people would welcome his arrival when he would visit Ahmedabad, people made fun of the two leaders. True, seven million is not even the total population of Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. Detractors felt that President Trump seemed to be naïve enough to fall in the smooth-talking Indian Prime Minister. Simplistically put, for the overwhelming opinion peddlers in media, both social and non-social, the boisterous claim of President Trump was funny.
Lost in this storm of contempt is the emerging Indo-US equation that few analysts anticipated when Trump defeated candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump's 'America First' policy and open diatribe against the nations which had not been reciprocating the kindness shown by Washington in the past were expected to hit New Delhi in its 'non-aligned' — though much more diluted than the era of Jawaharlal Nehru — policies in terms of global political and economic stance. Evidently experts are somewhat amused at the development during the last three years of Trump presidency. Not only did Prime Minister Modi survive the change in the US policy but he also managed to improve upon the relationship contrary to what the analysts foresaw. The boisterous statement of candidate Trump in his rally needs to be heard in this context.
Notwithstanding several apparent incongruities in the Indo-US relations, the last three years saw New Delhi and Washington building on what first was sown when President Clinton extended his arm for support during the Kargil conflict in 1999. His successors carried forward this thawing of relations, with President George W Bush offering a generous nuclear deal, which despite best efforts, Indian politicians could not stop Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from accepting. President Obama visited India twice, the only US President to do so. What is more, he attended the Republic Day show, the first-ever US President to do so. For President Trump, this is the first visit, that too in the last year of his term.
Among the US Presidents that India has faced post-independence, perhaps Trump is the first one who did not care much about diplomatic niceties or the global role of Washington. Ashley Tellis wrote in the Foreign Affairs, "President Donald Trump's 'America First' agenda, which asks what every American partner has done for the United States lately, had strained relations with many traditional U.S. allies. But his agenda seemed especially incompatible with India's expectation that it would continue to benefit from American largesse — particularly in the form of diplomatic support and generous technology access — despite resisting the reciprocal obligations that come with a formal alliance."
Indo-US trade relation, a sensitive issue, given the 'America First' policy of Washington under President Trump, received a setback when the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) was withdrawn in June 2019. Then Indian commerce minister Suresh Prabhu had failed to handle the veteran Robert Lighthizer, the USTR. The first intimation came when India was in election mode. Reportedly Prime Minister Modi had then requested his former Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (who was then working with the Tatas) to join the trade negotiation effort. But the die was cast and India lost GSP status, affecting close to $6 billion worth of exports to the US. No wonder that Suresh Prabhu is not in the Union Cabinet now. Handling complex trade and political relation require patience and negotiation skill. More so when one does it from a relative position of weakness. Naturally, Prime Minister Modi cannot delegate the task to anybody else but the competent people working with him. This visit from Trump should be seen in this context.
It is even more complex since analysts and media have reservations on both the head of states. Once the visit was announced, headlines kept hunting if a big trade deal would be signed. This was the headline when Prime Minister Modi visited Houston last year as it is even now. Sensitive negotiations do not happen under the glare of the camera, only the final signing is left for publicity. But the fact that President Trump, an out and out transactional leader, cared to meet Prime Minister Modi in Houston and is visiting India with his close family members, illustrates that India is indeed an important ally Washington has been counting on.
Credit goes to the painstaking efforts of Prime Minister Modi, a person who was the only one whose US visa was cancelled under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) provision of US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). According to Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, this was a mistake. He said, "The old formula and stereotypes will not work if the US administration wants to engage with Mr Modi. The Indian prime minister is candid, direct and smart. He speaks his mind." Clearly Trump has little or no patience with the old formula of Washington. It, therefore, created a personal equation of sorts between the two leaders which even Trump admitted in his talk on India visit.
Prime Minister Modi has assiduously cultivated the United States of America. He did not waste his energy in joining the bewilderment of global leaders when Donald Trump was elected. Instead, he addressed the impulsive US leader with lavish care. In public, he lavished attention on Trump which was seen in Houston. In private, Modi did not react to Trump's desire to negotiate peace with Pakistan and many such sensitive comments. If Trump says that he likes Modi a lot, the reason is his assiduous attention to the US President.
A more relevant question than the promised seven million-strong crowd is, will there be a trade deal soon? If there is a change in US Presidency post-2020 election, will the effort of Modi go to waste? While nobody can gauge how much water will flow in the Ganges and the Mississippi, the fact remains that Modi paid due attention to the US President and had shown clear intention to do so even if there is a change of guard in Washington. Diplomacy is a game of patience. President Trump's inauguration of the Ahmedabad stadium is an example. When the present term of Modi ends, there will again be a new President in Washington. Irrespective of the incumbents, diplomatic relations must go on.
Views expressed are strictly personal