By Tridivesh Singh Maini
US President Donald Trump has a large number of supporters, as well as critics in India. Those sympathetic to Trump believe that he has been a victim of Left liberal propaganda and Washington insiders who are not comfortable with someone who is outside the ‘Beltway’ and wants to challenge the status quo. Some draw parallels between his predicament and that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially with regard to both leaders’ strained relations with the media. The latter, however, was an outsider to New Delhi but not the political system per se.
In addition to this, there are those who believe that Trump, given the support — something which he acknowledged after the electoral verdict — he received from groups like the ‘Republican Hindu Coalition for Trump’ would be well disposed towards India. Those who support Trump also believe that, unlike his predecessors, he will not treat Pakistan with kid gloves, given his tough stand on terrorism.
Finally, those favorably disposed towards Trump also believe that the US President will be firm in his dealings with China. The US President had spoken to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and had also spoken about the possibility of US challenging the ‘One China Policy’. The US President was, however, quick to retreat from this position, realising that this position was unsustainable.
Those who are skeptical about the Trump presidency point to the anti-immigrant stance and the views of his chief strategist Steve Bannon. Recent hate crimes against members of the Indian community, and the H1-B bill which will make it tougher for the Indian IT sector have only sent the message that these fears are not unwarranted.
If one were to judge Trump’s moves so far he has been pragmatic in his dealings with China and Japan and there is no reason to believe that he will not adopt a similar attitude towards India. Yet, it would be extremely tough for Trump to totally renege on claims he had made during the election campaign.
India needs to act fast and needs to come up with innovative methods to deal with the US President. Big companies from other countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan have already made commitments, with some like Ali Baba CEO Jack Ma already having met the US President.
So far the only Indian businessmen who have met him are his partners in India, Atul Chordia and Sagar Chordia (Founders of Panchshil Realty) and Kalpesh Mehta (Founder and Managing Director of Tribeca Developers).
PM Modi understands the relevance of trade and commerce in foreign policy, often referring to his Gujarati origins. He has also been accompanied by businessmen during his overseas visits. It is likely that during his visit to the US, the Indian PM will be accompanied by top business honchos. It would make sense of course to send a group of businessmen from various industries, including the IT and Pharma sector, so that there can be some purposeful negotiations.
Trump is an outsider to Washington DC and does not depend upon the DC bureaucracy. PM Modi, too, is keen to break the monopoly of the national capital over foreign policy. It is time for both countries to give a fillip to state-to-state engagement. Only recently, Indian Ambassador to the US, Navtej Sarna, hosted a group of 27 US Governors one of whom was the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, who is heading to China.
Branstad knows Chinese President Xi Jinping ever since 1985 when Xi visited Iowa. Terry Branstad had just become Governor of the State and Iowa had entered into a sister province partnership with Hebei. Branstad and Xi met again in 2011, when the former visited China and Xi was Vice President. During Xi’s visit to Iowa in 2012, both leaders met yet again.
Branstad’s case reiterated the significant role of state-province engagement in China-US ties, and also is an example of how Trump is likely to use such ties to benefit the relationship. Indian states too should seek to reach out to a larger number of US states, especially those with a significant diaspora and business interests. As in the case of US and China, a state-level dialogue should be strengthened.
In conclusion, Trump is here to stay, and ‘US domestic politics’ cannot and should not influence India’s dealings with Trump. India needs to watch out for its economic interests and strategic interests. It cannot, however, turn a blind eye to the safety of Indian immigrants, but the only way is striking the ‘right deal’ — something Trump lays a lot of emphasis on and is clearly evident from his 1987 book, ‘The Art of the Deal’. It remains to be seen whether New Delhi can exhibit the pragmatism and the imagination to deal with some of the likely challenges in Indo-US economic ties.