Cementing India's ties with an unpredictable US prez

When Narendra Modi arrived in Washington in Sept 2014 after a decade long ban on his US visa, he was hailed as the rock star prime minister. He hit off with then president Barack Obama well as he was received at the White House where the who’s who of the US were treated for dinner.

The White House had never experienced anything like that. A lot of water has flown in the Hudson river since then. After the last year’s elections, though he has had three phone conversations with Modi, new President Donald Trump is largely an unknown persona to the prime minister.


Trump has earned the unenviable reputation for being disruptive and divisive at home and disconcerting abroad, both to his friends and foes. He is known to betray unconventional insensitiveness to the US allies (German Chancellor Angela Merkel remembers his unpresident-like rebuke at the G-7 Summit and the Australian prime minister Trump’s insulting phone conversation).

But those who are unduly concerned about how Trump and Modi will get along at their first meeting underestimate the innate ability of the prime minister to create a distinct personal chemistry with world leaders. After all, he had easy outings with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Obama with his out of box, imaginative and persuasive ways (that serious differences with China persist is a different matter).

I see no reason why Modi should not hit it off well with Trump notwithstanding the latter’s recent critical references to India on climate change, Indian IT companies and H1B visa. Modi understands diplomacy and is capable of showing to Trump the shiny side of good relations with India which none showed him earlier.


No amount of argument and statistics offered by IT body Nasscom to stress how much investment Indian tech companies have made in the US over the years, how many billions of dollars they have paid in taxes and how many jobs have been created, has cut any ice with Trump. He remains tough on this issue as this endears him to his core constituency.


Besides, the quick announcements by Infosys, Wipro and TCS that they will hire thousands of Americans in the coming year give enough ammunition to Trump to claim that his tough talk is paying off. Modi should convince Trump that the US remains the world’s largest centre of path-breaking innovations.


He has to tell him that the IT sector of India which aspires to rise on the ladder to offer newer, more complex and sophisticated services in unchartered areas, presents huge opportunities ready to be explored by the US companies. American investment in India’s IT sector will generate business as well as jobs for America.


Contrary to the general perception, there is no fundamental clash between Trump’s idea of America First and Modi’s campaign for Make in India. Trump’s entire thrust is that the US companies should invest in the USA so that jobs don’t go abroad. This priority of the US president can be an opportunity for India.


Modi can convince Trump that while China is experiencing serious problems of unutilised over-capacity and large number of layoffs, the American MNCs will be creating thousands of jobs back home and manufacturing branded goods in India by investing on a massive scale in Make in India projects.


This, while the American MNCs will be creating thousands of jobs back home and manufacturing branded goods in India which could be shipped to different destinations in the world. Make in India is also Make for India and ‘make for the world.’


This is a different ball game than the Japanese automobile companies setting up plants in Mexico and shipping cars across the border to the USA. American defence exports worth $15 billion in the last five years created jobs in USA. These will multiply if US starts producing defence products in India. The Lockheed-Tata agreement to produce F-16 augurs well. In the infrastructure sector, roads, ports, airports, railways, smart cities, water management, sewerage systems etc offer win-win prospects for American companies in India if they act smart.


Higher technologies
American MNCs should offer higher technologies for reducing carbon emission and generating renewable energy. The Indian companies have been investing billions of dollars in different countries including the US. Their share of investment in the US can rise if it is made more attractive to do so.


While the prospects for expansion of bilateral economic relations with USA under the businessman-president look good, strategic dimension of relationship on several global/regional matters is somewhat hazy on account of his impulsive, unpredictable and ill-advised responses.


However, the number of U-turns Trump has taken in the last four months suggest that he does not shy away from course correction if the prevailing circumstances so warrant. What he had said about China during his campaign and how he struck a productive relationship with the Chinese president after hosting him at his Mar a Lago resort, is a clear pointer.


While Trump has led a frontal attack on the American “fake” media, his public spat with the intelligence and security agencies, dumping of agreements and blunt demands of the European allies, Japan and South Korea to pay their dues do not concern us much. However, his cosying up with China and the Wahabi regime of Saudi Arabia, and demonising Iran while supporting the isolation of the tiny Qatar where the US has military bases, do create complications for us as does his stand on Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Unlike Obama’s second term, US’ relations with Israel have witnessed significant boost under Trump. We too have a very productive relationship with Israel which will be deepened further during Modi’s forthcoming visit, first ever by an Indian prime minister, shortly. This growing warmth with Israel can contribute not only to the expansion of bilateral relations but also help India cement relations with Trump’s presidency.


(Ambassador Surendra Kumar (rtd) is Founding President, Indo-American Friendship Association, New Delhi)

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