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Donald Trump, a contrarian view

T.P. Sreenivasan

T.P. Sreenivasan  

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India has fewer reasons to be uncomfortable about a Trump presidency than generally feared

India has an old love affair with the Democrats in the United States, but the Republican Presidents and legislators have done more for India-U.S. relations than Democrats in recent years.

John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton and their wives conquered hearts in India, but they did not transform the relationship as the younger George Bush did. Mr. Clinton initiated the process of normalisation with India, but came down on India like a ton of bricks when it tested >nuclear weapons in 1998.

In the days following the tests and sanctions, many close Democrat friends of India, even the Chairman and members of the India Caucus in the Congress, deserted us, except for Congressman Frank Pallone. The State Department was not on talking terms with us. It was a statement by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that he could understand India’s concerns as it was in a “tough neighbourhood” that changed the bleak atmosphere for India in Washington. Again, it was Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican, who whittled away the sanctions against India over a period of time.

Though Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was once referred to as “the Senator from Punjab” by her detractors, there is no evidence of her having gone out of her way to favour India. She has maintained a friendly face towards India, but her concerns about China and Pakistan were all too evident during her term as Secretary of State. As President, she is likely to continue the ambivalence.

Barack Obama started off as a hot favourite in India, but appeared disillusioned after his visit in 2010, when he failed to win the nuclear and the fighter aircraft contracts. His initial opposition to the nuclear deal did not stand in the way of its implementation, but he extracted a price for every step he took with Narendra Modi to take the relationship to greater heights. Despite all his camaraderie with the Indian Prime Minister, he spared no occasion to lecture India on the merits of religious tolerance and nuclear fidelity. Many tricky issues remain even as we call ourselves a major defence partner of the U.S.

Republican >presidential candidate Donald Trump remains an enigma wrapped in mystery, with his confusing pronouncements on domestic and foreign policy. He has been accused of having neo-fascist tendencies. But his positions are evolving. He seems to have abandoned the idea of banning Muslim immigration, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and stopping all migration and outsourcing. He has realised the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, even though he still believes that the partners should pay for the services they receive. But he is capable of thinking out of the box and this may well be the reason why he is still neck and neck in the race with Ms. Clinton today.

Positions that align with India’s

Terrorism is the recurring theme in every speech that Mr. Modi makes and that is a measure of India’s most important preoccupation today. Mr. Trump’s agenda is identical and India can rely on him to fight terrorism in all its forms, whether it is the >Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Taliban or the Pakistan-sponsored outfits. “Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the world today. The only country that can check Pakistan is India,” he said in September 2015. No Democratic President, not even Ms. Clinton, will take such an unequivocal position on Pakistan and terrorism.

As a businessman, Mr. Trump has been an admirer of India to the extent of encouraging investment in India. Two Trump Towers are in the making in Mumbai and Pune in partnership with Indian entrepreneurs. He has gone on record as saying that after the installation of the Modi government, India has become a “top place’ for investment. In January 2016, Mr. Trump complimented India for “doing great” and expressed surprise that nobody was talking about it. Since he puts his money where his mouth is, as President, Mr. Trump is likely to embrace India. As a businessman President who has pledged to bring prosperity to the U.S, he may find a valuable partner in Mr. Modi.

Mr. Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his championship of Brexit may well be signs of his wanting to be different from others. But neither of these, even if taken to their logical conclusion, will hurt India’s interests. On China, Mr. Trump has been ambivalent. His main criticism about China is on trade and currency matters. In fact, his anticipated “trade war” with China could wipe out $420 billion off China’s exports, according to Kevin Lai, a Hong Kong economist. Mr. Trump has also had some good words to say about China, but his distrust of Beijing is obvious and he is not likely to act against our interests. The Democratic optimism about China being a responsible nation that can be entrusted with looking after stability in South Asia is not likely to be shared by Mr. Trump.

In the middle of September, barely two months before the polls, Ms. Clinton may have a slight edge over Mr. Trump but the matter is not settled as yet. Mr. Trump has begun to lead in critical “battleground states” like Ohio and Florida, where Ms. Clinton was leading till recently. If the Americans take a leap into the dark on account of their frustrations about the economy, terrorism and China, as the British did in the case of Brexit, we may end up with Mr. Trump as President. India has fewer reasons to be uncomfortable about such an eventuality than generally feared.

T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and currently Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

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