One of the strangest things about the 2016 US presidential election is how little we know about the winner: Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.
To a certain extent, this is quite amusing given the excruciatingly lengthy nature of the campaign. As Emma Roller counted in The New York Times, "By Election Day, the campaign will have gone on for 597 days. In the span of which we’ve been paying attention to the same presidential campaign, we could have instead hosted approximately four Mexican elections, seven Canadian elections, 14 British elections, 14 Australian elections or 41 French elections."
And yet despite numerous articles and several hours of TV debates over the last 19 months, tragically, all we have on Trump is a caricature as grotesque as his naked statues.
We know that he boasts about grabbing female genitalia, walks in unannounced inside changing rooms of beauty pageants, doesn't pay taxes, threatens immigrants and vows to ban Muslims. But apart from his scandals and moral failings what do we know about the man who will be the most powerful leader in the world? What do we know about his views on America's foreign policy, trade relations, geostrategic and geopolitical affairs — stuff that may affect us and the world around us — beyond a few broad brush strokes?
This is chiefly because the media never took "Trump the candidate" seriously and dismissed him as a clown on the sidewalk. It remained trapped in a self-created illusion even though Trump was moving up the primaries, caucuses and knocking Republicans off (and fumbling his way through the debates). The media gave him no chance. Cocksure in belief and cocooned in utter disconnect from the people on the street, the media mistook the affluent coastal cities, a few Silicon Valley tycoons and Hollywood superstars for America.
So, now we are saddled with the task of deciphering how Trump presidency would impact the world and India based on the scrapings from his campaign. In the absence of the vetting that the media should have done before he was elected to the Oval Office, we must, post-facto, try to piece together a coherent picture.
I believe there are five broad areas to focus on when it comes to the Indo-US relationship under Donald Trump. These would be (in no specific order) geostrategic affairs, trade relations, immigration and visa policy, the personal equation between leaders of the two nations and bilateral relationship.
Geostrategic affairs: Early reactions indicate that Pakistan and China are nervous about resetting their relationship with the US. That would imply good news for India because America under the Democrats had been very convenient for both. While Pakistan has successfully exploited its geostrategic positioning to blackmail the US into providing a perpetual line of credit, China has sucked dry US manufacturing jobs and runs a huge trade surplus.
Not surprisingly, both nations have issued nervous statements, warning Washington that any change in the terms of engagements will end up harming US interests. While China is concerned about increased American isolationism, Pakistan's nervousness stems from Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric and his open admiration for India.
At this point, it is difficult to be sure just how much of Trump's campaign rhetoric will spill over and affect his normative thinking but any resetting of the US-Pak relationship should be good news for India. As Pakistan's foreign policy analyst Hasan Aksari Rizvi told Reuters, "America will not abandon Pakistan, but definitely, Trump will be a tougher President than Hillary Clinton for Pakistan... I think India will have a better and smoother interaction compared to Pakistan."
We get a peek into Trump's mind when he talked to CNN in Wisconsin about the cocktail of radical Islamist terrorism and nuclear weaponry that is brewing in Pakistan, or his assertion in an American radio show last September that Pakistan is the world's most dangerous country and the US needs to work very closely with India to check it. Again, one isn't sure how much of this he may successfully carry into the White House when he sits down with the Secretary of State and his policy wonks but this should give an indication to Islamabad that it may not be business as usual.
Hillary Clinton's presidency would have ensured a measure of continuity of Barack Obama's policies. For China, though, Trump presidency might be a mixed bag. While more duties and tariffs on imports may hit China hard at a time when its domestic economy is grappling with a slowdown and bursting of credit bubble still looms as a Damoclean sword, it would be heartened by Trump's assertion that he intends to reduce America's interventionism in global affairs. Translation: American submarines might not patrol the South China Sea any longer.
When that happens, sovereign nations affected by China's aggressive geopolitical ambition might veer towards the other great Asian power: India.
It would be pertinent to remember that at this stage, all of this is little more than guesswork and Trump is marvellously unpredictable.
Trade relations: Trump faces an incongruity of policies because the angry, forgotten men and women who propelled him to Oval Office demand a greater share of the economic spoils that globalisation promised but failed to deliver. A tiny few seemed to have gotten richer in a globalised world at the expense of a vast number of the discontented, and the inequality of wealth has caused an angry populace to install a protectionist leader at the helm.
Trump vowed, just like Nigel Farage (the father of Brexit) did, that he would slap duties, taxes and tariffs but in a world which runs on interconnectivity, that would mean raising costs of the nuts and bolts of the engine that drives America.
As New York Times points out, "the American economy depends on access to a global supply chain that produces parts used by innumerable industries, along with a great range of consumer goods. Mexico and China are central actors. Disruption threatens to increase costs for American households. Tariffs on China might provoke a trade war that could slow economic growth, while most likely just shifting factory work to Vietnam and India."
If America raises the cost of trade with China, India stands to benefit in more ways than one.
Immigration policy: This has been the biggest area of concern for Indians. Given the fact that we are witnessing a global backlash against softer borders and easier immigration policies, one may be inclined to think that Trump's term might be bad for India's IT industry. But the reality isn't so simple. Trump has been contradictory, at certain times he has been praising the contribution made by skilled Indian workers and at other times needling US companies for hiring them in large numbers.
As a report in Times of India elucidates, Trump said in October last year that he was in favour of bringing skilled foreign workers into the US, as long as they come legally. He repeated it in March saying how Silicon Valley cannot be run without Indians and that very smart ones educated in the US should be allowed to remain there. "Many people want to stay in this country and then want to do that. I think somebody that goes through years of college in this country we shouldn't kick them out the day they graduate, which we do," he added, according to the newspaper. Yet he has also canvassed for increasing the H1B visa fees to pressurise US companies into hiring domestic workers.
Overall, one gets an impression that Trump regime may not go for any radical overhaul of the system that has been working well.
The personal equation between leaders: Trump has never hidden his admiration for Narendra Modi and has been effusive in his praise for Hindus and Indians — though it isn't clear just how much he understands the fact that the terms are not synonymous. Speaking to NDTV during a fundraiser organised by Republican Hindu Coalition, Trump said: "I have great respect for Hindus. I have so many friends that are Hindu and they are amazing entrepreneurs. I have jobs going up in India right now. I have great respect for India. It’s an amazing country." He also asserted that were he to be elected, "Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House".
He even borrowed Modi's 2014 slogan during the campaign, tweaking it to "Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar" during an Indian American outreach programme. He has praised Modi's leadership, his effort to simplify the tax system through GST and on his part, Modi has carefully veered away from reacting to any of the controversies that dogged Trump during the election campaign. With a better personal equation between the two leaders, Indo-US relationship should remain on the path of a greater synergy.
Bilateral relationship: When it comes to government to government relationship, A Trump regime might be just what the doctor ordered for India, which is boxed in by an irritant in Pakistan and a formidable power in China. Indo-US areas of interest converge on a number of issues and Trump, for one, has not been hesitant in calling India America's "natural ally".
As news agency PTI had reported, during the Republican Hindu caucus Trump extolled India before a cheering crowd as "the world’s largest democracy and a natural ally of the US". He said, "Under a Trump Administration, we are going to become even better friends, in fact, I would take the term better out and we would be best friends... We are for free trade. We will have good trade deals with other countries. We are going to do a lot of business with India. We are going to have a phenomenal future together."
Indian wonks and political leaders should find it easier to deal with a businessman rather than a career politician like Clinton who carried a greater understanding of bilateral relations but also a huge baggage of past mutual suspicion. Trump, who still has large business interests in India, should be a refreshing change. On India's areas of foremost concern such as cross-border terrorism, Trump has taken a firmer stand than Clinton would have ever taken. A Trump regime should be good for India.