Next Friday, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the USA. It promises to be a noisy, divisive occasion. It will also mark the biggest change in American policy. Trump is an outsider whom no one expected to win. There are shell-shocked people who worry that something must be wrong with the country to have elected Trump.
India had a rehearsal of this experience when Narendra Modi was elected. The media was not ready for such an outsider, who also had the blame for the 2002 riots to overcome. The idea that the BJP could choose him to head the campaign for the parliamentary elections was anathema to many people. Yet, Narendra Modi won more than handsomely. After 25 years, a single party got a majority. Many Congress supporters could not believe their party could fall so low.
Trump is also an outsider to elections and political life. He behaves and acts as an untrained, uncontrollable person. He denounces individuals and nations in a way which has not been heard for many decades. But as in the case of Modi, while the professional politicians and media don’t approve, the people love him.
They are both nationalists but there is one big difference. Modi wants to take India to the top. Trump is worried that America has slipped from its top position. He wants to make America great again. Trump is worried America may be on its way down in the power league. Modi just wants to get India higher up that league.
The synergy between these two leaders will come in international relations. Take four nations — America, Russia, China and India. It is seriously likely that the coming years will see a heightening of tensions among the four. America and India have been coming closer ever since Vajpayee’s days. Manmohan Singh and George Bush got along like wildfire. Under Barack Obama, the alliance got closer. There is an implicit understanding that India and America will stand together.
Together against which country? India and Russia have been allies for decades. Trump has expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin. India has a border dispute with China going back 60 years. Trump has singled out China as the major economic problem for America. Russia, on the other hand, has no problems with China.
Take the worst-case scenario. It is America and India against China. Russia may stand aside from this confrontation. But if there is an actual military conflict, it will be across the India-China border and in the South China Sea. When Trump seeks to make America great again, he wants to put China in its place. He sees China as having taken the greater share of gains from trade. This may be the case in fact or not, but Trump is serious. This is why he took the unusual step of being friendly with the President of Taiwan. It took America 25 years before it recognised the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate power rather than Taiwan. In reversing the policy, Trump was not being naive. He knew he was tweaking China’s tail.
It may not come to a military conflict. But it is more likely than not, for the first time in 50 years, that it will.