Donald Trump is America's problem, but India's opportunity

On many issues, Indian opinion makers habitually imitate their American counterparts with a missionary zeal. It's obvious that the effect will be magnified in the case of Donald Trump. As American media declared war against its 45th President, the battle cry inevitably reverberated from the ramparts of New Delhi. It isn't clear what stakes they had in this clash, but Indian liberals have greeted Trump with long LitFest sessions and defiant Facebook walls — both expressing apocalyptic fears. Something tells me Trump won't be losing his sleep over it.

Ever since the 70-year-old started converting his electoral promises into action through a spate of executive orders, Indian media went into a tailspin. Amid widespread cries of armageddon and daily dart-throwing on the Trump dartboard, not a single attempt has been made to contextualise Trump's ascension and evaluate whether he poses the same threat for Indo-US bilateral relations as he does, seemingly, for American domestic policies and politics.

File image of Donald Trump. Reuters

File image of Donald Trump. Reuters

This isn't to condone or criticise Trump's actions since he stepped into the White House. His executive orders on Obamacare, refugee or immigration policies are part of a separate debate. As Indians, what should be of immediate concern to us is to what extent are we impacted by Trump's policies and whether or not India will have leverage over him.

Strange as it may seem, relationships between nations are not governed by liberal principles or social justice.

While to a certain extent solidarity with American brethren over Trump is understandable and even inevitable, it makes little sense for Indians to roam about with a hurt look and 'Not My President' placard on shoulders. Not only because our President is Pranab Mukherjee, but also because bilateral relationship depends on shared interests and realpolitik. On these counts, India is actually better placed than most nations with Trump in the Oval Office.

If we follow the Trump trajectory closely — right from the extraordinarily long election campaign to early signs from his cabinet — the consistently positive rhetoric on India and areas of mutual concern become evident.

Trump had all along maintained that he will be India's 'big friend' and on more than one occasion had praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his 'decisive leadership' and ability to do away with bureaucratic deadwood. That set the tempo for good chemistry between the leaders.

During a charity event last October, the then-Republican presidential nominee had called himself “a big fan of India” and promised to "stand shoulder to shoulder with India in sharing intelligence and keeping our people safe mutually". The significance of his visiting a non-battleground state during peak campaign season to attend a Republican Hindu Coalition wasn't lost on anyone.

In his book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies that hit the stands last August, Lieutenant General (rtd) Michael T Flynn has written: “Countries like Pakistan need to be told that we will not tolerate the existence of training camps and safe havens for Taliban, Haqqani, and al-Qaeda forces on their territory, nor will we permit their banks and other financial institutions to move illicit funds for the terror network.” Trump has since appointed him as the National Security Adviser, raising hopes that US will act on Flynn's threat that Pakistan will be treated “harshly” and the aid will be “cut off” if Islamabad doesn't mend ways.

Another key Trump aide, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, made no bones about the need for a closer strategic partnership with India. During his confirmation procedure at the US Senate, the retired Marine Corps General had called Indo-US relationship one of "utmost importance" and advocated much closer, long-term ties based on security and defence in Asia Pacific region.

Modi had called Trump just hours after his victory and the POTUS returned the favour on 24 January. Albeit a courtesy call, the implication of it being placed ahead of Trump's phone calls to European heads of states, Beijing or even Moscow was hard to miss. A White House release stated that "United States considers India a true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world" and that the duo "discussed opportunities to strengthen the partnership in broad areas such as the economy and defense". The statement also made it clear that "United States and India stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism. President Trump looked forward to hosting Prime Minister Modi in the United States later this year."

Reading between the lines, it is quite clear that Trump administration considers India a natural counterbalance to China, whose rise as a mercantile power bent on throwing around its economic and diplomatic heft carries disconcerting side-effects for both India and the US. It is entirely possible that having withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington now may rely on India greater than ever to restore some sort of a balance in Asia. Already, Chinese president Xi Jinping has indicated at Davos that Beijing isn't avert to taking up global economic leadership if America cedes that spot.

Speaking to CNBC, Manpreet Anand, former US deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, said that Trump may accelerate the dovetailing of US-India security interests in Asia. "Through successive administrations and strong congressional support, the US has made tremendous investments to expand its relationship with India over the past several years… The Trump administration has an opportunity to double down on those efforts as the strategic interests of our two countries continue to align," Anand said.

With Trump at the White House, India's biggest geopolitical gain could be the expected improvement of US-Russia ties that hit the nadir under Barack Obama. During this time, Russia had gravitated towards the China-Pakistan axis putting at direct risk the long-standing relationship with India. It is unlikely that Moscow and Washington would be exchanging love letters soon but a transactional relationship between two deal-makers in Vladimir Putin and Trump may stop a total breakdown of ties and prevent a bankrupt Moscow from seeking Chinese aid. Beijing has shown it would only be too happy to bankroll Russia and increase its influence in Eurasia.

The tetchy questions over US immigration program — H1B visa — remain. According to Ananth Kumar, Union minister for chemicals and fertilizers, there is no reason to think that Indian IT and pharma industry will be hit severely by Trump's policies. "Prime Minister has already had a telephonic conversation with the US President (Trump). I don’t think there will be any change in the attitude of the US in terms of commerce-related issues," he said on Saturday.

There could be initial pressure on IT firms to hire locally, but consequently, opportunities for Indian tech industry will increase manifold. The overall net result should be positive.

Also, as an Indian-American Republican leader pointed out on Monday, Trump's "Buy American" and Modi's "Make In India" need not be mutually exclusive policies and indeed, could be even complementary, given the fact that Trump is worried about an yawning trade deficit with China and may impose some tariffs that could pave the way for better bilateral trade between the two nations. Shalabh Kumar, a big donor to Trump fund, expects trade to rise from over $100 billion now to rise to at least $300 billion by the end of Trump’s current term.

Of course, leadership can't be put into grand theories and rarely do relationships follow the rules of logic. There could be many variables. But if mutual interest is the basis of stable Indo-US relation, we Indians need not be despondent about Trump. He is America's problem but our opportunity.

Updated Date: Jan 31, 2017 08:17 AM

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