Away from the media glare, groundwork for what Barack Obama called "the defining partnership of the 21st century" is quietly under way as India's foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tries to simultaneously break the ice with Donald Trump administration, set new terms of engagement, and tap the opportunities during his four-day US visit. Speculation is that the brickwork will also be laid for a maiden Narendra Modi-Trump meeting.
The understated nature of the tour and sparse details of talks should take nothing away from the significance of it. For both India and the US, a closer bilateral tie is a strategic and economic necessity and fits well with both administrations' stress on mutual instead of multilateral engagements.
As Trump resets ties with US allies, partners and triggers a period of instability in the global geopolitical order with his unorthodox approach, the challenge for India is to take forward the bipartisan goodwill it enjoys in US Congress, cement further the quite considerable areas of mutual interest, and work assiduously towards mitigating the few areas of concern.
The key, on India's part, is nimble-footedness. Early signs show that Trump's foreign policy could be more instinctive than institutional. In accord with his carefully built 'disruptor' image, Trump may try to tear down past terms of engagement and set new provisos for deal-making. It is imperative on India's part, therefore, that it quickly builds a rapport with key figureheads of the new administration, most of whom lie outside the traditional Washington or Republican power structure. Steve Bannon, for instance.
Towards that end, India has wasted little time. This is Jaishankar's third trip to the US since Trump's victory. What has added to India's challenge is the sudden turn of events at Washington which saw Michael Flynn, Trump's National Security Adviser, put in his papers for "misleading" the White House over his conversations with a Russian envoy less than a month into his tenure. This rendered useless India's early outreach when NSA Ajit Doval, acting on an invitation, had flown to US in December to meet Flynn even before the Trump administration had been sworn in.
Doval and Flynn, during their 19 December meeting, had covered a lot of ground on bilateral ties, regional and global geostrategic issues. The wastage of that early effort means that Jaishankar, during the current visit, had to start from scratch when he met Trump's new NSA, Lt Gen HR McMaster. Unlike Flynn whose brief tenure at White House was marred by huge controversy over his supposed Russian links, military veteran McMaster is seen as a solid figure who will inject much more stability and predictability in Trump regime. The seasoned army veteran has huge combat skill having served twice in Iraq wars and is considered a strategist intellectual for his PhD dissertation-turned-critically acclaimed-book on Vietnam War.
A man with clear-cut ideas on US role in troubled areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan's duplicity in backing Taliban and on tackling the menace of Islamist terrorism, McMaster, according to a report in The Telegraph, is seen by the South Block as a man "having a worldview closest to New Delhi's within Trump's senior team". But the new American NSA, says the report, has had little exposure to Indian military leaders or diplomats and Jaishankar's brief, in this respect, was clear.
Following their meeting, PTI reported from Washington that both Jaishankar and McMaster "are believed to have discussed issues related to security relationship, counter-terrorism, and defence partnership." Terrorism and defence cooperation are one of the key pillars of Indo-US bilateral ties. On both these counts, Jaishankar's task has been made easier by the process set in motion by previous regimes in New Delhi and Washington.
India and the US are signatory to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which makes it possible for their militaries "to work closely and use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies," as reported in The Indian Express at the time.
India is also the 'major defense partner' of the US, an initiative of the Obama administration which made India a key member of Asia Pivot, a strategy that emanated from both countries' shared concern over the rise of China.
And just this month, India's defence minister Manohar Parrikar, during a telephonic conversation with US defence secretary James Mattis, "discussed cooperation under the Defence Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI) and the Major Defence Partner status, and agreed to take forward the joint development of defence platforms,"according to The Hindu,
While defence may serve as the bedrock of closer Indo-US ties, the risk mitigation lies in how New Delhi tackles a more inward-looking US that has seen a surge of hate crimes since Trump's ascent to the White House. Much has already been written about the shooting incident in Kansas, which lead to the death of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla and critically injured his friend Alok Madasani.
On Friday, another report emerged of Indian-origin physiotherapist Ekta Desai being allegedly racially abused by an African-American man who, according to a PTI report, mouthed expletives at her and yelled “get out of here” when she was travelling in a train on 23 February in New York. A video, in which the American national is seen uttering words like “Freedom of speech” and “Black Power,” has gone viral. These incidents will add an element of unease in Indo-US ties on the crucial area of people-to-people connect where both countries enjoy a close cooperation.
Jaishankar's meeting with Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan was fruitful in that regard, with Washington releasing a statement saying: "In our meeting, I expressed the House’s condolences on the death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was senselessly murdered last week in Kansas. Our peoples must continue to stand together, and I look forward to working with Foreign Secretary Jaishankar in the years ahead."
Trump's 'America first' strategy and a strong nationalist agenda has already made the multi-billion Indian IT industry nervous. Jaishankar's challenge would be to show to the Trump administration that closer people-to-people connect and an easier visa regime is mutually beneficial and should not be seen as a one-way street.
Jaishankar may, as Economic Times says in a report, point out the $20 billion in taxes and $7 billion towards social security contributions paid by Indian IT firms in the past four years. Or how between 2011 and 2015, 400,000 jobs were directly or indirectly supported by Indian tech firms in the US, recording a 10 percent annual growth.
With Bannon as possibly the second-most powerful man in the US after Trump — who as pointed out in The Washington Post is a right-wing ideologue and has many times in the past complained about so many Silicon Valley CEOs being Asians or South Asians and has severely criticized the federal H-1B visa program — it certainly won't be easy for India.
But if anyone can change a challenge into an opportunity, it is Jaishankar, who famously called for India not to "demonize Trump" but to "analyze him" and introduce innovativeness in policy making.
“A US that looks at the world differently and tries to create new terms of engagement might actually offer us opportunities which a more orthodox America might have been timid about,” a report in LiveMint quoted one of Jaishankar's recent speech.
We need more of such out-of-the-box thoughts to get the best out of a Trump-led US. Jaishankar is the right man to lay the groundwork for it.
Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 18:27 PM