United States President Donald Trump arrives in India just about a month ahead of the 20th anniversary of the first India visit of a US President in the post-Cold War era. Arriving in March 2000, President Bill Clinton inaugurated a new phase in state-to-state bilateral relations between the US and India by implicitly recognising India’s nuclear power status, admitting that the line of control between India and Pakistan should be viewed as the international border so as to bury the “Kashmir issue” forever and increasing entry visas for Indians that has since contributed to the emergence of a sizeable community of Indian Americans.
The Clinton visit occurred against the backdrop of a new assessment within the American strategic community of India’s potential role in the post-Cold War era and against the backdrop of the rise of China. Condoleezza Rice reflected this new thinking in an important essay in the influential journal Foreign Affairs (January-February 2000) in which she suggested that the rise of democratic India would be in the interests of the US and so the latter ought to be supportive of the former.
The rise of China and of radical Islam and jihadi terrorism provided the geopolitical context, the growth of an increasingly open Indian economy provided the economic context. Influenced by this new thinking, President George Bush took the next steps in strategic partnership and led the initiative to promote cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy that also explicitly recognised India as a nuclear weapons power. As heads of state, Clinton and Bush altered US-India bilateral relations in a fundamental way.
President Barack Obama was the only US President to visit India twice during his tenure but his first visit only helped to make up for his earlier missteps — of not voting in favour of the US-India civil nuclear power agreement in the US Congress and then naming Richard Holbrooke as an emissary to sort out the “Kashmir issue”. His second visit was more a recognition of the growing importance of people-to-people (P2P) relations and aimed at promoting defence sales to India in the hope that the new “muscular” Indian leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would spend more money on defence purchases. During the nuclear deal negotiations, US Congresspersons would often suggest that it was a “123 for 126” deal — that is, they would vote in favour of the 123 agreement in Congress in the hope that India would buy 126 fighter jets from the US. That hope remains as yet unfulfilled, with the French getting the Rafale deal and no decision taken on the purchase of US fighter jets.
While Obama finally came around to sticking to the Bush template, the credit for laying the foundation for a new and supportive post-Cold War relationship between the US and India goes singularly to President Bush. The mutually beneficial framework that Bush helped create to promote the bilateral relationship has been rudely disrupted by the arrival of Donald Trump in Washington DC and the turn towards aggressive Hindu majoritarianism in India.
Trump’s “America First” policy offers no space for offering India “special and differential” treatment on any front, least of all trade. With per capita annual national income of US $60,000, Trump’s America has no qualms declaring India, with a per capita annual average national income of US $2,000 a “developed economy” not deserving of any leniency in trade policy. To club China, a $15-trillion economy, with a $3-trillion India on the trade front is not just stupid but an affront to Indian sensibilities. On the other hand, such backhanded compliments are a consequence of the premature celebration of India’s rise by a self-congratulatory elite.
It has to be recognised that neither Democratic liberals nor Republican conservatives are any longer willing to be supportive of the Bush-Rice paradigm that views India’s rise in benign and mutually beneficial terms. The bipartisan consensus in the US on relations with India cuts both ways. It covers both the positives and the negatives in the relationship. Today the relationship seems caught in the pincers between the inward-orientation of rightwing nationalists in both nations. There is no reason as yet to believe that this unfortunate state of affairs will be altered by the Trump visit next week.
Trump has also moved away from the Clinton-Bush framework on India-Pakistan relations and moved closer to Obama’s initial approach of wanting to insert the US into the equation on Kashmir. Trump’s motives are no different from those that initially drove Obama — namely, to appease Pakistan in the hope of securing a peaceful exit from Afghanistan. Expect differences to persist. At best, India can hope to limit the damage Trump may do to strategic stability in the region.
There will be much talk about US investments in India and increased visas for Indians going to the US. Both are driven largely by US corporate interests. Given the direction of the Modi government’s trade policy, one cannot expect any dramatic concessions being made. The best India can do for the US is to buy more defence equipment and ease up on some trade restrictions. Defence sales to India are an essentially commercial activity and much of it can go on even in the absence of strategic convergence and shared geopolitical perspectives. The US has often armed both sides in a conflict, interested only in selling arms, not resolving disputes.
Much is made of Indian Americans heading US multinationals and the Great Indian Diaspora in the US, and many of them get paraded around by politicians on such occasions but the fact is that they constitute a “brain drain” out of India, perhaps as big as the “drain of wealth” out of colonial India and into imperial Britain that Dadabhai Naoroji wrote about in the 19th century. The continued neglect of education in India is increasing the outmigration of talent, offering the US a reservoir of talent. While the Indian elite celebrate this out-migration, the fact is that it is a drain on national resources.
In sum, therefore, with the supportive Bush-Rice doctrine defining the post-Cold War US-India partnership virtually abandoned, and the new Trump doctrine treating India as a “developed” economy, demanding parity on trade, bilateral relations have become uncertain and testy. To hide the lack of substance in the relationship the Trump visit will focus on hype and Prime Minister Modi has perfected the art of diplomacy as mass entertainment.
This article first appeared in the February 17 print edition titled ‘Hype Trumps Hope’. The writer is a policy analyst and former media advisor to prime minister of India