Three years ago, when Narendra Modi first came to the US as prime minister, American policymakers saw it as an opportunity to engage with the leader of a strategically important country. Given the prior limited official engagement with him, there was uncertainty about the approach the prime minister would take toward the US.
But on this trip, it is prime minister Modi’s turn to engage a significant Indian partner’s leader — about whom there exist a number of uncertainties, but with whom there has not been much official interaction.
What purpose can this visit serve? First, it is a chance for Modi to establish a relationship — even a rapport — with President Donald Trump. Senior Indian officials have been meeting with their new counterparts. But there is no substitute for this highest-level meeting. Arguably, this president’s personal inclinations can shape policy much more than by any of his recent predecessors. If the meeting goes well, it can send a signal across the bureaucracy, allowing movement in some key areas that have been stalled, or maintaining momentum in others, like defense and security. It can also facilitate the management or downplaying of differences in the future.
It is unlikely the prime minister will make a big deal of disagreements (for example, on the Paris agreement or the H-1B visa issue), but will look to address them in a different way (in terms of clean energy or skills contributions). Taking a cue from Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese President Xi Jinping, he will also likely set aside the criticism that Trump has directed against India.
Second, the visit is an opportunity to showcase the mutual benefits of the India-US relationship. For the last decade or so, the reasons for India’s importance has often been left unsaid. It is necessary to go back to the basics and explain the significance of the partnership — in terms that Trump will find attractive.
This particularly means doing what Modi has expected other countries to do with India, which is to explain how those nations can contribute to his domestic objectives. He needs to make the case that Indian companies and consumers are creating American jobs. He could highlight recent deals, such as the order worth billions an Indian airline placed with a US aircraft manufacturer. Or deals that serve both “Buy American” and “Make in India,” such as Indian Railways buying locomotives from a US company which are being produced both in the US and India. Or note the intentions of Indian companies to create jobs in the US, for example in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana.
The two countries can announce new agreements in sectors like defence and energy where India has market power. Other contributions to the American economy can be noted as well — for example, via students, high-skilled workers, and tourists — as well as India’s strategic contribution to maritime security in the Indian Ocean or to Afghanistan.
Third, a meeting is a chance to shape Trump’s views on key subjects. At a time when the administration is undertaking a review of Afghanistan policy — which will have repercussions for its Pakistan’s policy — Modi can provide India’s perspective.
Counter-terrorism and China are two other key issues, particularly given concerns and uncertainty about Trump’s approach toward them. This is easier done during a bilateral visit than in a meeting on the sidelines of a multilateral summit, which isn’t Trump’s comfort zone. The prime minister and his team can also engage with other members of the administration on these issues, and more broadly with constituencies for the India relationship within government and outside it, such as business and the large and influential Indian diaspora.
Finally, this is an opportunity for Modi to get a better sense of Trump. This could be a pace-setting visit. It’ll help the prime minister determine whether or not it is worth making deals or compromises, and how far to go. It can also set the stage for jump-starting negotiations (for example, on trade and investment), or establishing new or replacement dialogue mechanisms.
Abe’s visit, for example, led to a Vice President-deputy PM-led economic dialogue and Xi’s to a 100-day economic action plan.
Modi has some advantages that Abe and Xi lacked. Trump has criticized India, most recently on climate change. But his general impression of the country and the prime minister seem to be positive, whether because of his personal impressions, his business experience or the political support he received from sections of the Indian diaspora. Moreover, India was not a target during the campaign the way China, or Asian and European allies were. On his part, Modi believes in the power of personal diplomacy. He has made clear that he will show Trump the respect he has sought. This might be especially attractive for Trump coming on the heels of strained interactions with European leaders abroad, and at a time he feels besieged at home.
Publicly, it is smart for policymakers to set low expectations for visits. But it’s even more true in this case, given the unpredictability of the president, as well as domestic political developments in the U.S. There is no guarantee that the meeting will go well—or even that a good meeting’s effects will last. The visiting delegation will have to be prepared to deal with surprises, asks and complaints, and to be responsive without compromising core Indian interests or overpromising.
Some have asked “why bother” with a visit, then. The answer is that the US remains important for India. It’s worth recalling why multiple governments have invested in building a strong relationship with the US. Strategically, it has been considered important to balance China, facilitate a greater Indian role on the global stage, and help build India’s military and economic capacity. Economically, it has been a crucial market, as well as source of capital, technology, resources, education and jobs. Democracy and the diaspora have also created links.
And while there is little doubt that these fluid times reinforce the impression that a diversified portfolio of partnerships is a good idea, India’s own history shows that a US partnership offers India more options and benefits. For years, Indian policymakers have asked their American counterparts to show patience, to continue investing in a relationship that might not always give immediate returns but will be in worthwhile in the medium to long term.
Now, it is India’s turn to show such patience.