No matter what progress is made in the Namaste Trump event, it is an advantageous situation for both leaders
Bilateral summits of major powers are held normally as milestones in their relationship without any particular agenda.
But for historical reasons, recent US Presidential visits to India have been turning points in the relationship, which have transformed the countries from estranged democracies to engaged democracies.
After the severe crisis in the relationship following the Indian nuclear tests, the long Jaswant Singh-Talbott talks (1998-2000) and the nuclear deal (2008) the Presidential visits became mutually beneficial and reached new heights by 2016.
But after President Donald Trump took over, new issues came up because of the new international posture of the US like rejection of globalism and America First approach. Some of them were resolved during the meetings of Trump and Modi, but another summit was necessary to build a strategic relationship.
For this reason, the forthcoming visit of Donald Trump assumes special importance. But regardless of the outcome of the visit, the meeting will be personally beneficial to both of them.
The timing of the visit was determined by Trump as India had wanted him to come in January as the Republic Day guest, but Trump had different preoccupations ranging from the killing of Suleimani to his own impeachment.
Having emerged from these trials by fire, Trump decided to visit India partly to impress his Indian voters and to secure some benefits from a trade deal, arms supply and peace making between India and Pakistan. Even if there are no final decisions in these matters, the visit will definitely benefit Trump.
For Modi, the visit itself at this time and the “Namaste Trump” celebrations will be a morale booster for him. The visit will prove wrong the theory that the present protests over Kashmir and the Citizenship Act have made India unpopular in the world.
In actual fact, bilateral relations are not affected by internal disturbances and the nature of the government response. Modi is rolling out the red carpet to show to the world that India can confidently deal with the most powerful country in the world despite the disturbances in his own nation. Whether a trade deal is finalised or not, the visit is already in his favour.
In the fourth year, Trump has emerged as an iconoclastic nationalist, who has abandoned traditional methods of winning friends and influencing people. He has pursued his agenda for making America great with his own characteristic disrespect for past alliances and enmities.
Domestically, he focused on his vote bank, including the gun lobby and the anti-abortion lobby and increased his rating. Abroad, his focus was on his adversaries rather than his allies. A second term appears to be a distinct possibility and all that he does now is part of his campaign.
China, North Korea, Iran, IS and Venezuela were clearly Trump’s adversaries and it appeared that he was inexorably moving towards use of force in each of these cases. But despite the fire and fury he created for each of them, American boots on the ground and Americans in body bags are not likely in any of these situations anymore.
The trade war against China, pushing North Korea to denuclearise their country by threats and talks, disciplining Iran’s nuclear adventures, elimination of terrorists and supporting a rival President in Venezuela were without clear precedents in history.
The world watched Trump with horror initially, wonder afterwards and relief eventually. The shifting of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and the more recent announcement of the Settlement Plan for the Middle East were unthinkable a few years ago.
Gone are the days when the Middle Eastern tinder box could explode with a mere spark from Israel. With Israel and Saudi Arabia on two sides, Trump had the courage to present an anti-Palestine plan, which repudiated not only international consensus, but also previous American positions.
President Trump never considered India an adversary, but he was the first US President to take India to task for being the king of tariffs and made an issue of the trade imbalance. He was grateful to Modi for his friendship and his efforts to lift millions of Indians out of poverty.
But he accused India of making billions of dollars out of the US and not spending enough on Afghanistan. Although the trade balance with China was much higher, Trump used the same language to criticise India on trade policy. He also launched a mini trade war against India which India reciprocated.
He also pushed India to buy more weapons systems from the US and to cancel the missile defence system India had ordered from Russia. Trump also wanted India to stop importing oil from Iran and impose other sanctions. Above all, he wanted to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the festering Kashmir issue, even though he knew it was India’s firm position that no mediation was necessary.
Trump appears to have a definite agenda to bring India in line with his global strategy. In anticipation of Trump’s demand that India should buy more weapons systems, India has already indicated a deal for helicopters worth Rs 25,000 crores and a missile system to defend Delhi.
Knowing that the way to Trump’s heart is through the barrel of a gun, India is likely to buy more from him. We know that those who buy weapons from him can do no wrong as in the case of Crown Prince MBS of Saudi Arabia. If the order placed on Russia for the defence missile system is cancelled, it will gladden Trump’s heart even more.
There were indications that a trade deal would be finalised during his visit, but the report that the US Trade Representative has postponed his trip to Delhi has cast a shadow of doubt on the outcome. That will be considered a setback by Trump. It was only after signing a trade deal that Trump announced that US-China relations had never been better than now and that Xi had become a close friend.
Whether there is any progress on Trump’s agenda on Iran and Russia or not, another rejection of mediation between India and Pakistan will leave Trump disappointed. In that case, he is likely to point out the warlike situation on the border and press for direct talks, which have been stalled on account of continuing terrorism from Pakistan. The slow normalisation in Kashmir will impress him, but he is likely to urge further liberalisation of the situation and the release of the leaders in detention.
Trump had mocked India’s assistance programme for Afghanistan as “building of libraries”. In his eagerness to pull out his troops from Afghanistan, he would like India to take a more proactive role, which will be difficult if the new government in Afghanistan formed by the US will include the Taliban. If, in desperation, Trump brings Pakistan back into the Afghan imbroglio, India will have another challenge.
Apart from the trade issues, India has concerns about migration issues involving Indian technical personnel. Indian companies operating in the US have not been able to get appropriate personnel from India because of the slowing down of issue of visa.
But Trump has said that he would permit more Indian technologists to come and settle in the US to build a strong America. In an election year, he may not increase migrants, but may quietly allow Indian technologists to enter and work there. It is estimated that the IT industry would not be able to work without Indians for eight more years.
Trump may have concerns about Kashmir in the context of his desire for mediation, but he will be supportive of India’s discretion to choose the migrants it wants, as he himself is doing.
For the rest, the dictum that differences should not be allowed to turn into disputes will take care of any glitch that may develop. Trump will undoubtedly have much to show his electorate not only in terms of the respect he can command In India, but also the hard cash to bring unemployment further down to qualify for re-election.
Modi has already promised him large numbers at the “Namaste Trump, surpassing the crowds at “Howdy Modi”.
Bilateral summits do not fail because there are ways of projecting lack of progress as part of the process. The visit by itself is a win-win exercise for Trump and Modi.