IN THE first conversation between the two since Donald Trump was sworn in as US President, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed India’s concerns on proposed changes to the H1B visa programme, official sources told The Indian Express.
Sources said the issue was raised by Modi during their phone conversation at about 11.30 pm on January 24, with Trump responding that India’s views would be given “consideration”.
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The US President also raised the issue of the South China Sea, and America’s interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters claimed by the Chinese as their own.
Pakistan also figured fleetingly, sources said, as Modi raised the issue of cross-border terrorism as a challenge confronting India’s growth, and peace and security in the region.
So far, India has not issued an official readout of the conversation, while the White House version did not mention these specific issues.
The phone call saw the two leaders exchange notes on a variety of issues — from economy to defence, terrorism to regional security situation, official sources confirmed.
Sources said the H1B issue was also raised by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar during his two trips to New York during the Trump transition process. They said that Jaishankar met the then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence and former US Congress Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is now one of Trump’s advisors.
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The White House readout, issued on January 25, stated: “During a call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, President Trump emphasized that the United States considers India a true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world. The two discussed opportunities to strengthen the partnership between the United States and India in broad areas such as the economy and defense.”
It added: “They also discussed security in the region of South and Central Asia. President Trump and Prime Minister Modi resolved that the United States and India stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism. President Trump looked forward to hosting Prime Minister Modi in the United States later this year.”
From the Indian side, Modi tweeted on January 25: “Had a warm conversation with President @realDonaldTrump late last evening. Have also invited President Trump to visit India.”
The H1B visa issue, which has the government as well the corporate sector worried, could emerge as one of the sources of potential discord with the Trump administration, sources said.
“India’s interests and concerns have been conveyed both to the US administration and the US Congress at senior levels,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup had said, at the time.
Last week, Swarup said: “Look, first of all let us be very clear, no executive order has been signed so far. All that has happened is three private bills have been introduced in the US House of Representatives. Such bills have been introduced in the past also and such bills have to go through the full Congressional process. So let us not pre-judge the outcome because we have seen what has happened to similar bills in the past. If and when an Executive Order is passed, we will certainly give our reaction.”
This reference to the legislation pertains to the bills on immigration reform, one of which has been introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and is called the High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017.
India is the largest beneficiary of the H1B visa programme for skilled professionals, as it bags almost 65 to 70 per cent of such visas issued by the US worldwide. China is a distant second at about eight per cent, according to the last available US government data from 2014.
Sources said that Modi and Trump, who are likely to meet in July at the G-20 summit in Germany — if not earlier — are likely to have conversations on the issue in “due course”. Officials from both sides are waiting to see the final shape of the legislation and proposed executive orders before they start negotiations.
The phone call was the second conversation between the two, after Modi called Trump to congratulate him on his surprise victory. Trump’s call to Modi — he was the fifth foreign leader to receive a call from the new US President — came ahead of similar calls to leaders from European Union, Russia and China among others.