Trouble lurks behind the bilateral bonhomie

Trump’s visit has aided U.S.-India ties; it has set the frame too on the extremes to which each leader will go with the other

Updated - February 27, 2020 12:08 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2020 12:02 am IST

When history looks back upon the evolution of the India-U.S. bilateral relationship through the 21st century, it will likely reflect a consensus that the world’s largest and oldest democracies held fast to a steady upward trajectory in their mutual engagement by capitalising on synergies and adroitly sidestepping roadblocks.

That assessment is certainly applicable to the current phase in the ties that bind New Delhi to Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to India this week has catalysed progress on outcomes in trade, defence, security and energy cooperation even as it has implicitly set parameters on how far either Mr. Trump or Prime Minister Narendra Modi will go to publicly or privately challenge each other’s governments on areas where they have faced criticism from other quarters.

Consider first the momentum that Mr. Trump’s visit, a two-day extravaganza in Ahmedabad , Agra and New Delhi , has imparted. At the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, Mr. Trump largely stuck to script, praising the peaceful rise of India as an “economic giant” that has lifted 270 million people out of poverty in a decade. Segueing to the accomplishments of two successive Modi governments, the President went on to praise the rapid increase in Indians’ access to basic sanitation and cooking fuel and the construction of highways across the country. His comments were, in a sense, the mirror image of the words uttered by Mr. Modi at the ‘Howdy Modi!’ rally in Houston, Texas, in September 2019, when Mr. Modi went so far as to imply an endorsement of Mr. Trump for a second term in office when he said, “Ab ki Baar, Trump Sarkar”.

It’s not all hurrah

It is at this juncture that the first wrinkle in the bilateral space becomes evident. For the best part of 20 years now, India has been a policy subject of bipartisan consensus in the U.S. government, including the White House and Congress. Yet, even as the extant polarisation of public opinion was further embittered through the election campaign and first term of Mr. Trump, a section of U.S. Democrats, traditionally seen as being the party whose support for India ran deeper, began to splinter away from the mainstream on this subject.

From presidential nomination frontrunner Bernie Sanders, who said in recent days, “Instead of selling $3 billion in weapons to enrich Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed, the U.S. should be partnering with India to fight climate change,” to Pramila Jayapal, Indian-American Congresswoman from Washington state, who was denied a meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar for criticising India’s violation of minorities’ right to religious freedom, there is a growing disenchantment with several major policy planks of the second Modi government, including its Kashmir policy and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, and the National Register of Citizens.

Now, both Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi appear politically unassailable in their respective countries presently, Mr. Trump enjoying a relatively high approval rating across multiple demographic cohorts and Mr. Modi riding strong on the wave of popular support that catapulted him to a landslide victory in the 2019 Indian general election . Yet at least as far as U.S. politics is concerned, oppositional forces to an incumbent tend to mount through a slow boil. It is quite likely that the apparent distaste for the consensus on globalisation and the economics of competitive advantage, as well as for the Bretton Woods institutions that mediated this process, grew steadily through the two terms of former U.S. President Barack Obama, and perhaps even his free-marketeer predecessor, George W. Bush.

Similarly, if Mr. Trump continues to turn a blind eye to the deep-seated concerns over allegations of human rights and religious freedom rights violations the world over, including by the current Indian administration, that would only add to the litany of criticisms levelled at the 45th President, alongside charges relating to the abuse of presidential power, obstructing Congressional inquiries and disregarding conflicts of interest. Is it thus wise for India to take a hostile position toward certain U.S. Democrats in the confidence that Mr. Trump is going to be around for a second term to bat for India’s position on sensitive matters?

Glossing over violations

Setting aside the potential stumbling blocks in the longer term, the optics of Mr. Modi playing host to an American President, including motifs of peace such as their visit to Sabarmati Ashram and the spinning of the charkha before a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, appeared jarringly insensitive given that parts of the nation’s capital were in flames over riots that had distinctively communal undertones. Rampaging mobs in the north-eastern parts of New Delhi were attacking Muslims on the streets, vandalising their shops and setting vehicles and homes on fire, even as law enforcement officials appeared to be standing by mutely, perhaps outnumbered, watching the spectacle unfold.

While Mr. Trump said in his press conference that he had discussed the CAA with Mr. Modi in their private parleys, he appeared satisfied with the assurance that the Prime Minister gave him that the issue was being dealt with. Over the longer term, this tactic of turning a blind eye to rights violations by the government of a trading partner may run afoul even of conservative elements in the U.S., including Republicans who have historically been unabashed about expressing support for religious freedom rights abroad.

Progress but also trade woes

Second, let us consider the major areas of policies in the bilateral space, where there has been substantive progress. In defence manufacturing and trade Mr. Trump’s visit has nudged a deal for India to purchase $3-billion in U.S. military equipment toward completion, including the sale of Apache and MH-60 Romeo helicopters. On security cooperation, there is much to look forward to by way of improved coordination between the two countries’ governments in terms of joint military exercises and interoperability, as well as in fighting international crimes such as drug trafficking, narco-terrorism, human trafficking, organised crime and violent extremism.

India is also set to significantly increase its energy imports from the U.S. , particularly LNG, after ExxonMobil signed a deal to improve India’s natural gas distribution network.

The only area where the full potential for bilateral cooperation may not have been realised is on trade. Mr. Trump’s sharp focus on reducing the U.S.’s trade deficits with major trading partners, including India, has made for a bumpy ride in South Block over the past few years. In an escalating tariff war, Washington first slapped duties on Indian – and global – steel and aluminium in 2018, then pulled India out of its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in June 2019. Unsurprisingly, India responded with counter-tariffs and now U.S. dairy and medical device exporters are feeling the pain. With the White House recently reclassifying India as a “developed country” to deny it any concessions on trade subsidy investigations, and with United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer cancelling a visit planned around the summit meeting, it appears unlikely that India will be returned to GSP or that even a limited trade deal might be announced any time soon.

Putting the trade deal question in perspective, Alyssa Ayress, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that ultimately more economic openness would be to the benefit of not only India’s trading partners but itself.

Indeed, given the ongoing slowdown in the Indian economy, it is meaningful reform that: improves the efficiency of land and labour allocation; makes investment in infrastructure attractive, and puts job creation front and centre on the policy agenda, all of which might keep India on a strong footing vis-à-vis its strategic partners and make it unnecessary for its leaders to yield to the temptation of stirring the toxic cauldron of communal politics.


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