India faces set of ‘unknown unknowns’ with Donald Trump’s presidency

Instead of the easy familiarity that Hillary Clinton would have brought to India-United States ties had she become President, New Delhi is now faced with a set of “unknown unknowns” with a Trump presidency.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Published:November 9, 2016 8:49 pm
donald trump, trump, us presidential elections, stock markets, trump stock markets, global stock markets, business news, world news Republican US president-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, November 9, 2016. (Reuters)

The victory of Donald Trump saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi quick off the block with tweets congratulating the 45th-President elect of the United States, hailing “the friendship you have articulated towards India during your campaign”, and looking forward to “working with you closely to take India-US ties to a new height”.

But what does India really know about Trump’s idea of India, or India-US relations. The truth is, very little. Instead of the easy familiarity that Hillary Clinton would have brought to India-United States ties had she become President, New Delhi is now faced with a set of “unknown unknowns” with a Trump presidency.

Indeed, figuring out these imponderables is the first challenge for India’s policy makers as they scramble to adjust to the new power structures in Washington DC.

For instance, Trump’s views on the most important achievement of India-US ties in the last 15 years, the India-US civilian nuclear deal, are a complete unknown. It is not clear if he knows other details about the complex and difficult relationships in South Asia. All there is right now is a set of random, sweeping broad brush statements made by Trump, adding up to nothing that resembles knowledge, or a policy on India, or a policy on the region.

Here’s a list, in no particular order:

In campaign speeches, while talking about making “America First Again”, he promised that he would end US companies hiring non-Americans. “They are taking our jobs. China is taking our jobs. Japan is taking our jobs. India is taking our jobs. It is not going to happen anymore, folks!”, he said. “”I am not going to let companies move to other countries, firing their employees along the way, without consequence”

He also promised a country that would be focused on itself, not the world. “Americanism, not globalism will be our credo,” he said.

In an interview in 2007, that has been cited for Trump’s “positive” views about India, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “India is doing great. Nobody talks about it.” He said this while commenting on how the Indian and Chinese economies were leaving the US behind.

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But what has really endeared him to the Indians who see under the BJP and the leadership of Prime Minister Modi a stronger, muscular India in South Asia, are his Islamophobic views, his comments equating Muslims with terrorists, his remarks on India as a “check” to Pakistan, and his professed dislike of China, all of which mirror their own views about Islam and Muslims, and China, and the desire to “put Pakistan in its place”.

In an interview three months ago, he called Pakistan “probably the most dangerous country in the world today”, and went on to say: “India is the check to Pakistan…You have to get India involved … They have their own nukes and have a very powerful army. They seem to be the real check … I think we have to deal very closely with India to deal with it (Pakistan).”.

An Indian-American industrialist Shalabh Kumar, who also heads the Hindu Republican Coalition, was one of the biggest donors to the Trump campaign, giving $1.1 million to the man he believes will be the “most pro-India President since the birth of the US”, and will cut off funding for Pakistan.

For his part, Trump too courted the Indian community in the US. At a Republican Hindu event whose theme was “Humanity against Terror” last month, he said if he was elected, the Indian and Hindu communities would have “a big friend in the White House” and declared that “I love Hindu”. Most Indian community voters in the US are Democrats, and were appalled that Trump equated India with Hindu, but Hindu outfits in India beamed with pride.

It is easy to conclude from the little that is in the public domain that the Trump presidency will be protectionist on the economic front (therefore anti-movement of skilled labour, and thus “anti-India”), and on foreign relations, “pro-India”, “pro-Hindu”, and “anti-Pakistan”, in South Asia.

But notwithstanding Trump’s black and white vision of the world, the US economy is not an island. A large part of making “America first” will necessarily have to flow from securing US global economic interests, which cannot be delinked from foreign policy goals. Former US Administrations have secured American interests by cutting deals through give and take, whether with China or other countries. In India’s case, these deals have involved hard nosed bargaining by both sides – on trade and investments, defence deals, access to markets, intellectual property rights, visas and every other aspect of the “strategic” relationship.

Trump’s readiness to outsource a “check” on Pakistan to India has got some Indians hoping for a South Asian geopolitical dividend from this US election, though what Trump himself meant by his remark is yet another “unknown unknown”. But most clear headed strategic thinkers in India know that the uncertainty in Afghanistan, continuing hostile relations between South Asia’s two big neighbours, or the other side of this coin, Hindu supremacist tendencies in India, cannot make this country the economic or geopolitical superpower that it aspires to become. Nor can enmity with China

In so much as a US President brings a personal stamp to economic and foreign policy, Trump’s limited understanding and experience of the world could have an impact, as will his abrasive personality – which is built on a “my way-or-the-highway” philosophy. But the consolation is that the US Administration that he heads will be run by an experienced Republican machinery, and it is probably already clicking into place. What will tell us more about Trump’s foreign policy, will be his choice of Secretary of State, National Security Adviser, Defense Secretary, Secretary for Commerce among other key appointments.