U.S. President Donald Trump completed three years in office amid the chaos this week of an impeachment trial, initiated by the Democrats. If he goes on to win a second term in November as it now appears, Mr. Trump will have had six overlapping years with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in power by 2024. Persistent in their efforts to remake their countries and their engagement with the world, Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump are shaking up the bilateral ties between the two countries, and the resultant flux could outlive their tenures. Mr. Trump is scheduled to make this first visit to India next month.
As leading a ‘reawakening’
Both leaders continuously reiterate that their predecessors were incapable of protecting national interest. Such a premise commits them both to reframe the national interest, and both have articulated it with clarity and force. For instance, Mr. Modi, in Houston in September 2019 and Mr. Trump in Davos this week, went great lengths to lay out figures that presented their respective regimes as the most effective guardians, and ushers of progress, of India and America in history.
Both have a cultural and an economic agenda. Both dispensations believe that “the people” had been given a raw deal by earlier regimes, controlled by the elites and the experts who were in collusion with their global counterparts. They are now leading a national reawakening, and working hard for the hard-working people, they point out. Both believe that cultural nationalism is a force for the good; and both believe that Islamism is a major challenge to the nation. Though it is transnational, Islamism has collaborators and facilitators within the borders, as per their shared world view. Both believe that national borders need to be strengthened by stricter monitoring and setting new bars for entry. “JOBS, JOBS JOBS” as Mr. Trump tweets frequently in all capital letters, has been the loudest promise of both of them. Both leaders try to renegotiate the contract between the union and the States, and between citizens and the state within their respective countries; they assert the supremacy of the executive over the legislature and the judiciary. Both have a grim view of critical and independent media.
Despite his success in installing a legion of conservative judges, Mr. Trump has not gotten much far with his project of remaking America; for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court stalled a move to insert a question on citizenship in the census. Mr. Modi has been undoubtedly successful in warding off any meaningful scrutiny by the judiciary, and in subordinating Parliament. Categorical that the nation could not assert its rightful place in the world until they came to power under inept predecessors, they are trying to rework the terms of engagement of their respective countries with the world. The notion of shared values of India and the U.S. has acquired a whole new meaning under Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi.
True to their politics
Supporters of stronger U.S.-India ties had thought the nationalist politics of these two leaders would have a limited impact on bilateral ties that have autonomous drivers of convergence. But both leaders have been remarkably true to their politics in their governance. Mr. Trump has forced significant turns in the American approach to the world, blunting resistance from the security and corporate establishment, while Mr. Modi commanded the wholehearted support of the Indian military and security establishment for his disruptive security and strategic steps at home and abroad, though corporate India protests under its breath. Shared values notwithstanding, national interests as perceived by these leaders have several points of divergence and therein lies in the current tumult in India-U.S. ties. While Mr. Trump has been outspokenly confrontational with the “world order” that he says has worked against American interests, Mr. Modi swings between calling for adherence to order and chipping away at it. America under Mr. Trump has wrecked treaties such as the Paris climate agreement and institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, making a mockery of “rule based order”.
India under Mr. Modi continues to push for more space for itself in global affairs by seeking a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. There has also been the cancellation of several bilateral investment treaties, based on the understanding that they were negotiated on a weak footing. India’s approach of cautiously challenging the world order predates Mr. Modi, as seen in its nuclear ambitions, but the current regime has been audacious, pre-emptive military action in a foreign country being the most instructive.
Under Mr. Trump, America expanded the principle of pre-emptive strike to include the assassination of a senior official of Iran. Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi tried to renegotiate the neighbourhood policy of America and India, respectively. After dismantling the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Trump forced Mexico and Canada to accede to his demands in a new trade deal. Mr. Modi’s spirited outreach in the neighbourhood is still playing out, as it has touched raw nerves in small countries always wary of a domineering India. India’s historically warm ties with Bangladesh have been frayed. While Mr. Trump does not care about its forward posturing, India also cannot expect any American support in realising its ambitions of reordering the global power structure in its favour.
China and Pakistan
India’s ties with the U.S. are impacted by America’s ties with India’s adversaries and neighbours, China and Pakistan. Mr. Trump’s bluster against both had lit hope that there would finally be a near-complete alignment between India and the U.S. on strategy. Mr. Modi asked his audience in Houston which included President Mr. Trump: “Whether it is 9/11 in America or 26/11 in Mumbai, where were the conspirators found?” But there is no guarantee that cultural politics can align them.
Despite his avowed opposition to America’s endless wars in West Asia, the cultural warrior in Mr. Trump has been tricked bythe country’s military establishment into going against Iran headlong, which is not in India’s interest. Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi share strong bonding with the Gulf Cooperation Council kings, but their courses in the region are diverging. The American President’s impatience to get out of Afghanistan before the polling day had already pushed his administration closer to Pakistan, which is now further necessitated by his adventurist Iran policy.
As he appears to be lurching into fresh conflicts in the region, Pakistani generals are back in demand. While professional strategists have continued to read from the checklist on China in the last three years, Mr. Trump has been singularly focused on one question — trade. He cares little about China’s expansionism and at any rate that is not a factor in his ties with other Asian countries. He forced new trade deals on Japan and South Korea, and continues to look for a grand deal with China itself.
Points of fission
Far from seeing India as deserving special concessions to counterbalance China as old wisdom demanded, Mr. Trump has bracketed India and China as two countries that have duped his predecessors to gain undue advantage. He has accused both countries, in the same tweet, of raising trade barriers, having weak intellectual property protections, and stealing American jobs. He finds little value in Mr. Modi’s climate policy. And he has followed it up with restrictions on H-1B visa, ending of India’s status under the World Trade Organization’s Generalized System of Preferences and other punitive actions. This has been matched by India’s own protectionist measures, in response to American actions and independent of it.
By increasing hydrocarbon imports from the U.S., the Modi government is trying to reduce India’s trade surplus. Meanwhile, the intemperate mobilisation of Indian diaspora in America by the government has resulted in the inevitable blowback. The diaspora has been divided, and the bipartisan support for India is now squandered. Progressive sections on the Democratic side and religious libertarians and evangelicals on the Trump side are both concerned about India’s majoritarian turn. Nobody can shun India; but nobody celebrates India either.
A robust economy has allowed Mr. Trump the political space to temper his polarising rhetoric while Mr. Modi has had to double down on his, amid a sluggish economy. Partnership with America is critical to Mr. Modi’s plans for India, but the inverse is not true for Mr. Trump. The U.S. President’s India visit scheduled for next month will be part of an ongoing exploration of a new equilibrium in ties.