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Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Why the Trump-Modi lovefest defies friction in Indo-US ties

The all-too-obvious lovefest between US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is underpinned by two realities: one geostrategic and the other personal. Geostrategically, the US and India have been coming closer in the context of China’s rise as the world’s No. 2 economic and military superpower, which poses a threat not only to US and Indian interests, but also to all countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, the personal bonhomie and warm statements of support for each other, something unusual in India-US relations, comes from the kind of extreme hostility they have faced from ruling elites in both countries, the US deep state and the left-liberal ecosystem. Never mind that this ecosystem is nowhere near living up to the second part of its label, but the two leaders are drawn together by the visceral hatred they face from it. This animus, which is as much personal as political, stems from the fact that both of them were elected by a silent majority in the face of loud pronouncements on their unelectability by that ecosystem. By proving the pundits wrong, they have earned their eternal wrath.

Having said that, it is also difficult to ignore the differences. While Trump comes across as misogynist and racist, often making boorish comments about his political opponents, Modi is far more restrained in his speech, with election-time being the exception. If one were to look at the Twitter timelines of the two leaders, Modi’s tweets appear to be oozing with general goodwill and political correctness, in sharp contrast to Trump’s abrasive statements, some of which border on the abusive and the absurd.

However, beyond this personal chemistry, it is clear that the two countries are being driven by a close congruence of interests in economic and geostrategic matters. Under Trump, the US has not flinched from giving its strong and emerging allies alike a hard time on trade and strategic alignments. It wants India to give its exporters more access, even as it seeks to restrict India from expanding its footprint in information technology services. The US has a huge surplus in merchandise trade, with the deficit reversing only in services. Even in strategic areas, the US has been pressuring India to weaken its military ties with Russia and support its aggressive anti-Iran line. India has been forced to walk a tightrope. Even in the one area of close agreement, the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism", to use Trump’s words, the US and India have had differences on Pakistan and Kashmir.

Trump needlessly offered to mediate in Kashmir and, even as he has read the riot act to Pakistan on cross-border terrorism, he feels a need to do business with that country to extricate US troops from Afghanistan. Trump would ideally like India to take up some military responsibility to help the beleaguered Afghan regime once the US withdraws troops, but India cannot afford to put its own boots on the ground without over-extending itself when it has major military challenges in the subcontinent, such as the China-Pakistan nexus.

On trade, despite big friction between India and China, Trump has shown no inclination to cut India some slack. If anything, he has piled on pressure. Last year, he removed India from its Generalized System of Preferences, which allows more than $5.7 billion worth of goods to enter the US at concessional or zero duties. As in other areas, India has kept its response to this decision mild.

One reason why trade tensions have not derailed the India-US relationship is the growing military partnership. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, American exports of weapon systems have grown more than five-fold between 2013 and 2017 and Trump announced at his public reception on Monday that another $3 billion of arms deals are on the cards. India is already the US’s largest military partner outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Despite hiccups and disagreements, the US-India military and economic alliance can only strengthen.

Notwithstanding the Trump-Modi camaraderie, some clouds loom. India has always faced a more hostile US state department whenever Democrats have been in power. There is a good chance that Trump may return to power in the November presidential election, but if Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner among Democrats, wins his party’s nomination and the presidency, the state department could become potentially more hostile to India. Sanders’ key advisers have already demonstrated pro-Pakistan leanings. One can expect more pressure on India on its Kashmir policy if Sanders reaches the White House. Little wonder then that Modi has invested hope in a Trump victory by indirectly signalling to the Indian voter base in the US where his preferences lie. Both the Howdy Modi event in Houston last year and the Namaste Trump reception in Gujarat on Monday were smoke signals to the Indian diaspora.

However, one thing is clear: Though Indians may not be that big a factor in the US elections, the long-term trajectory of India-US ties is upwards. The Modi-Trump hugs are pushing a good thing along. Even after both Modi and Trump depart from the scene, the partnership will endure.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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