Donald Trump endorsement: India's calculated move

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a "Howdy, Modi" rally at NRG Stadium in Houston. (Reuters Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s indirect endorsement of President Donald Trump for the White House is a calculated risk. India’s gains from the US in the next few months would determine the merit of this endorsement. But an unapologetic India doesn’t care about its grand old foreign policy’s dogmatic values and principles. 

“The words of candidate Trump – Abki Baar Trump Sarkar rang loud and clear and his celebration in the White House lit up millions of faces with joy and appreciation." With these remarks, Prime Minister Modi indirectly endorsed President Trump’s candidature in front of 50,000 Indian-Americans in Houston, Texas. The event received one of the largest receptions for a foreign leader in the US. But Modi’s interference in the domestic politics of the US has created a furore in India’s academic, journalistic and scholarly community. The community is divided on the unprecedented-ness of this move. 

Would it be acceptable if the American President supports a party or candidate during the Lok Sabha elections? Are we setting a wrong precedent? Does this upset India’s grand old foreign policy strategy of non-interference? What if a democratic candidate wins the election? These are some clichéd arguments against Modi’s indirect endorsement of Trump. Let us dwell into them. 

Would it be acceptable if an American President endorses a political party or candidate? Are we setting a wrong precedent? 

It is important to understand the changing fabric of Indian society before venturing into these questions. Since Modi’s rise to the upper echelons of power, the Indian society is polarised vertically. Modi derives great strength from the vertical polarisation. Hypothetically, if the US President supports an Indian party or candidate, this polarisation would result in a greater blowback for him/her. Such calculations have certainly insulated and encouraged the current regime to endorse Trump’s candidature. Besides, India is not setting any wrong precedent. It is being pragmatic to explore the new contours of active engagement in foreign policy. The US, China, Russia, Turkey and many other countries have explored this in the past. As recent as 2019, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan endorsed Modi’s re-election. Justifying India’s replication of these actions would be incorrect. But if India is domestically prepared to take the headwinds in the future, then it might end up benefiting from this move. India might gain some leverage in the short-term by catering Trump’s ego in front a gathering of 50,000. President Trump is in the White House for, at least, the next 14 months, and India can explore this to its advantage. 

Does this upset India’s grand old strategy of non-interference? 

India’s grand old strategy of non-interference died with India’s peace-keeping mission to Sri Lanka in 1987. Under the current regime, India has repeatedly interfered in the domestic politics of its South Asian neighbours -- Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. India has also interfered indirectly in the domestic politics of Cambodia and Vietnam in 1970s. The United States is not comparable to these countries. But India’s celebrated principles -- including no diplomatic relations with Israel -- died in the late 1980s, when India went back to its approach of multiple engagements. With the end of Cold War, India shed its dogmatism of nonalignment and non-interference. It has since then unapologetically engaged with multiple countries, groupings and regional organisations, and has believed in active interference -- if required. Such pragmatic approach-wherever required -- has slowly made India a rule shaper from rule taker.   

What if a democratic Candidate wins the election? 

Political (election) rhetoric never translates into concrete actions. For instance, Modi engaged in anti-Pakistan rhetoric during the 2014 election campaign. But his first move was to invite the then Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with the South Asian leaders for his swearing-in ceremony. Besides, India is too big and important for the US to be ignored. It benefits from its geographic location, shape, size and population (market). India is the sixth-largest economy in the world and one of the biggest markets for American companies. The US goods and services trade with India totalled at an estimated $142.1 billion in 2018. More importantly, India is crucial for the US to balance the rise of China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Any US President, be it Trump or Bernie Sanders (who has been vocal in criticising India’s dilution of Article 370) would alter its approach -- from campaign rhetoric, in dealing with India.  

Despite all these claims, India’s gains in the short term gains will determine the merit for Modi’s endorsement of Trump. Indo-US trade cooperation (minor deal), defence cooperation (India needs new aircraft for its aircraft carrier), logistics deals, US' stand on Kashmir and more importantly its balancing between Pakistan and India are certain issues to look forward in the upcoming days. The development of Indo-US relations in the next 14 months should be the grounds for analysing this endorsement.  

Suyash Desai is a Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institution. His M Phil dissertation is on India’s approach to regionalism in Asia from CIPOD, JNU. He writes a weekly newsletter on the Chinese People's Liberation Army called The PLA Insight. 
 
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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