The exact date of Narendra Modi's impending Washington DC visit has not been announced yet (officially or unofficially) but it's largely taken to be around 25 to 27 June. This will mark the prime minister's first meeting with the newly elected US president Donald Trump and the dynamics of this engagement may far outstrip the strategic importance of India-US relationship. That is not to say that India should or should not look forward to a positive outcome but to imply that Modi and Trump's first face-to-face interaction may set the tone for future engagements.
This is a tad unusual. Meetings between heads of state take place within immaculately laid paradigms governed by strict protocols of officialdom, where even shaking hands or turning to the camera is carefully rehearsed. This is done to take unpredictability away from diplomatic pow-wows and to control, to the extent possible, the outcomes.
This theory is useless when it comes to Trump because he is the very epitome of unpredictability. During the Cold War, US reporters in Kremlin beat would have given an arm and a leg to get even a shadow of an idea of what the Russian leaders were up to. The current US president tweets his strategies and musings while watching television, sometimes keeping even his staff members and spokespersons in the dark. During the recent NATO summit in Brussels, Trump deviated from his speech and omitted a key line pledging support to US allies in the event of an attack, leaving European leaders and even his own delegation aghast.
During the campaign for US presidential election, author and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore had described Trump as a "human Molotov cocktail" whom his angry supporters may lob inside the Oval Office just to take revenge on the 'broken' system. Moore's contention, that Trump's ideologies "do not fall under capitalism, socialism or even democracy" turned out to be prescient. "His ideology is called Donald J Trump. He believes in Donald J Trump. If it's good for him, then it's a good thing. Not good for him, it's a bad thing."
It is impossible, therefore, for India to settle on an agenda when Modi eventually meets the mercurial leader. The prime minister may be required to improvise — like French president Emmanuel Macron did while shaking Trump's hands to not let himself be bullied — to grab opportunities or control fallouts. Media reports indicate that the visit may be a Spartan affair, and Modi may not go beyond a one-on-one with Trump and some engagements with top CEOs. There might not be any glitzy events with the Indian Diaspora.
The Times of India's Chidanand Rajghatta writes from Washington that "New Delhi is quite happy to sacrifice the thrills and frills, as long as there are no spills," and adds that "vacancies in the administration's US State Department or Foreign Affairs set-up (and the administration's inability to fill them quickly) has made life difficult for foreign diplomatic setting up visits for leaders from their home countries."
The bar of expectations is being set very low, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Trump is forcing nearly everyone — allies, strategic partners and even foes — to hit the reset button in the bilateral relationship and in some cases, swap sides, as Qatar found out to its surprise. The Indian effort might be restricted to controlling the controllable and reducing the unknowable. The key, as foreign secretary S Jaishankar had eloquently put it recently, is not to "demonise" Trump but to "analyse" him.
New Delhi must be prepared to accept that India is not among the focus areas for a Trump administration that is beset by domestic and international worries. On the domestic front, less than six months into his stint, Trump is already running the risk of exposing himself to impeachment proceedings. As an AFP report points out, if deposed FBI director James Comey testifies before the Senate that Trump tried to derail a counter-espionage probe, it might pave the way for allegations of the president obstructing justice and the door for impeachment might be made ajar.
The numbers are still heavily loaded in Trump's favour but it is evident that the US president will have more pressing concerns in his mind than Modi's visit right now. On the international front, a combination of his own immaturity, North Korea's belligerence and China's hard-boiled realism has resulted in a previously antagonistic Trump eating off Xi Jinping's hands, significantly increasing India's unease.
The recent headlines around Trump's assertion that India tried to sponge "billions and billions of dollars" off the US to join the Paris Climate Agreement and India's forceful rejection of the charge do not make for a happy ambience. There is also the deepening uncertainty over H1B visa programme where the Trump administration and Modi government are on opposite poles. It would seem that decades of careful investment in a mutually beneficial bilateral, strategic tie is going to be undone under Trump.
However, the theory of unpredictability states that we cannot even take a negative outcome for granted. India enjoys bipartisan support in the US Congress and the Indian-American community has grown in influence and is beginning to sway US policy decisions. There are also structural insurances in place in military-strategic affairs. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) under which both militaries will use each other's bases for repair and restocking of supplies, the co-development and co-production of military technologies under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) are all in place. The arms trade is also a strong adhesive.
Keeping these in mind, and be shorn of the hype, Modi might get exactly the opportunity that he needs to set the course of a very transactional India-US relationship under Trump that is based not just on common strategic imperatives but on quid pro quo. And, we might need to show some "strategic patience" with Trump. For instance, both leaders have a very specific agenda in reviving manufacturing jobs. Instead of hampering ties, 'Make America Great Again' and 'Make In India' may be complementary initiatives to fit both nations' interest.
There will also be strategic convergence on terrorism. Trump has taken a strident line on terrorism and has often been politically incorrect on this subject. Modi may find a willing listener in the US president on cross-border terrorism, India's pet peeve.
The crux for India will be to go into negotiations with an open mind, expecting the unexpected.
Published Date: Jun 08, 2017 17:20 PM | Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 17:20 PM