India-US tensions — that the Narendra Modi-Donald Trump conversations on the occasion of the Osaka G-20 meeting have hardly attenuated — are the logical outcome, not only of the rise of national-populism in both countries, but also of New Delhi’s quest for multi-alignment.
While India and the US claim to be strategic partners, the bones of contention are now more numerous and more substantial than they’ve been in the last two decades — after Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000.
The US criticism regarding the freedom of religion issue is probably the less important one — it will have no serious consequences. But this irritant is not going away: For more than half a decade, the annual report of the State Department on Freedom of Religion accuses India of not treating its minorities in the right manner. In April, the 2019 report not only mentioned the role of vigilante groups involved in “mob lynchings” but cited organisations: “A multifaceted campaign by Hindu nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution. Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and have used discriminatory language about religious minorities”.
The American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, while releasing the report, emphasised that freedom of religion was a personal priority. During his visit to New Delhi, ahead of the Osaka meeting, Pompeo declared in the course of a policy speech at the India International Centre: “Let’s stand up together for defence of religious freedom for all. Let’s speak up strongly together in favour of those rights. For, whenever we do compromise those rights, the world is worse off . India-US relationship is based on solid foundation, rule of law and the importance of civil society. These ideals — they allow people to flourish. The Indian people believe in them and Americans believe in them as well.”
More importantly, Pompeo focused on the trade dispute that has escalated between India and the US over the last few months. Almost one year ago, Trump denounced the failure of India to assure the US of what he called “equitable and reasonable access to its markets”. In February, India introduced new e-commerce rules that affected foreign online retailers, including Amazon and Walmart, which could no longer negotiate exclusives on products and sell items via vendors they hold an equity stake in, like Flipkart (that Walmart bought for $16 bn last year). Amazon India and Flipkart represent 70 per cent of e-commerce in India today and these new rules were intended to help domestic sellers to resist the American giants. They were strongly resented by the latter, which lobbied intensely with the Trump administration. Trump waited for the Indian elections to be over, but on May 31 he terminated India’s designation as a beneficiary developing country of the Generalised System of Preferences. The withdrawal of duty-free access to Indian exporters is bound to damage the Indian economy. The Modi government retaliated in June by imposing tariffs on 29 American goods.
These moves were expected, given the political agendas and images of Modi and Trump. National-populist leaders canvass on nationalistic issues — not only in terms of security vis-à-vis Islamism or the Chinese threat — but also in economic terms. When Trump claimed that he wanted to make “America great again”, he delineated a programme that was bound to unfold at the expense of others — including India. This is not true only regarding trade, but immigration too. Indians are not as welcome in the US as they used to be. Not only have thousands of techies seen their demand for an H1B visa extension rejected, but the Trump administration is contemplating imposition of a 10-15 per cent quota of all the H1B visas on migrants from countries forcing foreign companies to store data locally. India is one of them and is, therefore, criticised by companies like Mastercard and Visa, which have effectively lobbied the Trump administration. Such a cap on the Indian H1B visas would be an additional blow as Indians get about 70 per cent of the 85,000 H1B visas granted every year by the US. One may argue that such practices are unfair, but India’s attempts at regulating migration in the North-east reflect the same agenda — the kind of agenda on which national-populists are elected.
The fact that the strongmen at the helm in the US and India are cast in the same mould is not the only reason for the recent tensions. The Indian policy of multi-alignment or strategic autonomy is another. This approach is hardly sustainable when the world scene gets so polarised that memories of the Cold War come to mind. India thought it could be a strategic partner of the US and still buy S-400 from Russia. It went ahead with the deal at a cost of Rs 40,000 crore (without any tender) in spite of US warnings — and now it has to negotiate in order to get a sanctions waiver.
Similarly, to be a friend of Iran and the US at the same time is getting more and more difficult. New Delhi has had to bow to Washington when the Trump administration ended on May 2 waivers that allowed India (among others, including China) to continue their oil imports for six months after American sanctions over Iran were re-imposed. But what side will India take if US-Iran relations further deteriorate and if Trump returns to the Bush motto “with us or against us”? After all, India needs Iran because of Chabahar and Afghanistan — where the American withdrawal is another bone of contention.
An important question is arising in DC too: How far can the US rely on India to contain China? In the last Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting at Bishkek, Modi did not rule out India joining hands with Russia and China in the emerging trade war with the US. The decision India will make regarding 5G will send a significant signal: Will it boycott Huawei, like the US, or will it say “no” to the US and deal with Huawei?
At Osaka, Modi thanked Trump for his “love towards India” and the latter said that both countries “have never been closer”. But these words may not reflect the full picture of the US-India relationship at a time of resurgent nationalisms and national-populism.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of IndianPolitics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London