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India-US ties: Trump, Modi will decide

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is the author of 'Narendra Modi: The Man', 'The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984'.
Published : Jan 27, 2017, 4:38 am IST
Updated : Jan 27, 2017, 6:10 am IST

Trump also enlisted support of the proverbial ABCDs by courting the Hindu right in America.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: AP)
 US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: AP)

Vocal and visible voters in the United States of America and India were appalled when Donald Trump and Narendra Modi first floated their candidature. Because political systems of the two countries are so dissimilar; Indians had longer time getting used to the idea of Mr Modi at the helm while Americans were straightaway dunked in an icy pool. Through efficient and similar campaigns, the two reversed the idea of political correctness and romped home with the comfort that none predicted. Commonalities between the two were deep enough to convince a handful of fringe supporters of Mr Modi to conduct a yagna for Mr Trump’s victory.

Mr Trump also enlisted support of the proverbial ABCDs by courting the Hindu right in America. Parallels between the two, when they first staked claim to the offices that they later successfully conquered, were striking. Both declared themselves as “outsiders” and people accepted these claims because though they were previously engaged with the political system — Mr Modi for two decades starting from late 1980s — and Mr Trump from his failed presidential bid in 2000, neither was part of the entrenched power elites of the capital cities. Eventually when Mr Trump emerged victor he joined not just Mr Modi but several others on the global podium of populist and nationalist leaders who are linked by a common trait: governing their countries with a fair amount of arbitrariness and with scant regard for political and social agreement. Like Mr Modi, Mr Trump too believed that he was the consensus. Yet, after the verdict, there was a growing sense of trepidation among Indians, more among PIOs in America than those in the country, about the nature of the Trump presidency and the direction India-US relations would take. Is there reason for us to allay these fears after the telephone call to Mr Modi by the newly-elected US President?

The official readout put out by the White House on the telephonic conversation is somewhat indicative of things to come. It says that Mr Trump stressed that he considers “India a true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world” and added that the two leaders discussed “opportunities to strengthen the partnership” in “economy and defence”. A discussion on security in South and Central Asia was followed by commitment to “stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism” before the concluding declaration that Mr Trump “looked forward to hosting Prime Minister Modi in the United States later this year”. Mr Modi was less forthcoming about the phone call and in three tweets just mentioned a “warm conversation” during which they agreed to “work closely” with the objective “to further strengthen (our) bilateral ties”. Mr Modi concluded by saying that he too invited Mr Trump to visit India.

It will be easy to decode these official declarations by recalling that beyond the commonalities between the two as political individuals and strategists, the two are inexorably linked by their Islamophobic visions. It cannot be ignored that when Mr Trump first picked up the phone to speak to a leader of another country, he dialled Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Most importantly, the American President pledged continued support to Israel’s security and “stressed that countering ISIL and other radical Islamic terrorist groups will be a priority for his administration”. Given the fact that India and Israel are marking a quarter of century of diplomatic relations this year and that all protocol requirements for a visit by Mr Modi to Israel were completed with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit in November, it is likely that Mr Modi may visit Israel early this year. This may well be in quick succession to a possible trip to the US after the din of the Assembly elections have died down. Such a scenario points towards a closer bonding between India, US and Israel with the battle against terrorism being the issue, which binds the three.

Yet there are uncertainties over how India-US relations will pan out given Mr Trump’s stance on H-1B visa protocol. His “America First” declaration coupled with the inaugural address pledge of following simple rules: Buy Americans, hire Americans has surely been received with anxiety by Indian Americans and Indian companies operating in India and to whom business operations have been outsourced. Though a significant alteration in rules and regulations for visas to skilled workers would require the approval of the US Congress, Mr Trump does have certain executive options and Mr Modi’s visit may well get clouded if the President exercises his power before the Indian Premier’s arrival.

Indian outsourcing firms are keeping a keen eye on Mr Trump’s steps on immigration. Consequently, it would be political self-damaging if Mr Modi, in pursuit of the global campaign against terrorism, does not protect Indian economic interests. To be a good friend of Mr Modi, Mr Trump will be best served if he limits issues on which he emulates the Indian Prime Minister. Mr Modi moved to centrestage by demagogic articulation of exclusivist rhetoric bordering on intolerance and projecting this by unparalleled communication skills backed by professional media strategies.

Just as Mr Modi crowded adversaries out of media space, Mr Trump continues hogging international attention every morning with Trump-speak dominating newspapers, television channels and home pages of news search engines. Modi-like, Mr Trump remains belligerent.

Populism is often durable and has capacity to weather even most audacious decisions but Mr Trump may well be served by limiting his hate list and balancing between expectations of his core constituency — the insecure white working-class — and transient supporters from other sections. Mr Modi is sure to convey to Mr Trump that his regime will be best served by a friendly India. He may well say theatrically, “Donald Bhai, saath-saath chalne mein hi samajhdari hai!”

Tags: narendra modi, donald trump, benjamin netanyahu