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Trump on the campaign trail in India

By Ambassador T P SREENIVASAN
February 17, 2020 08:59 IST
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'Another rejection of mediation between India and Pakistan will leave Mr Trump disappointed.'
'In that case, he is likely to point out the war-like situation on the border and press for direct talks which have been stalled on account of continuing terrorism from Pakistan,' notes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.
The first of a series of curtain-raisers on the American president's visit to India next week.

US President Donald Trump with First Lady Melania Trump at the Daytona 500, February 16, 2020. Photograph: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

IMAGE: US President Donald Trump with First Lady Melania Trump at the Daytona 500, Sunday, February 16, 2020, a week before they board Air Force One on their passage to India. Photograph: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
 

President Bill Clinton was the last US President to visit India carrying gifts. President George W Bush and President Barack Obama came to India seeking benefits for themselves.

Mr Bush came to promote progress on the civil nuclear deal in 2006, Mr Obama visited India in 2010 in the expectation that India would help him reduce the unemployment rate by purchasing nuclear material worth $10 billion and fighter aircraft worth $10 billion and visited again in 2015 to secure Indian support for security in the Asia-Pacific.

President Donald J Trump too has even a broader agenda of his own ranging from trade and arms deals to mediation between India and Pakistan. Inevitably, his Indian visit and 'Namaste Trump' are part of the election campaign for him.

Mr Trump is notoriously unpredictable, egotistic, boastful and vengeful, but history is likely to judge him as a person of these chaotic times, when traditional diplomacy and development strategies have given way to risky enterprises with clear direction and determination.

In the fourth year of his term, he has emerged as an iconoclastic nationalist who has abandoned traditional methods of winning friends and influencing people. He has pursued his agenda for making America great with his own characteristic disrespect for past alliances and enmities.

Domestically, he focused on his vote bank, including the gun lobby and the anti-abortion lobby and increased his rating.

Abroad, his focus was on his adversaries rather than his allies.

China, North Korea, Iran, ISIS and Venezuela were clearly Mr Trump's adversaries and it appeared that he was inexorably moving towards use of force in each of these cases. But despite the fire and fury he created for each of them, American boots on the ground and Americans in body bags are not likely in any of these situations anymore.

The trade war against China, pushing North Korea to denuclearise the country by threats and talks, disciplining Iran's nuclear adventures, elimination of terrorists and supporting a rival president in Venezuela were without clear precedents in history.

The world watched mr Trump with horror initially, wonder afterwards and relief eventually. The shifting of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the more recent announcement of the settlement plan for the Middle East were unthinkable a few years ago.

Gone are the days when the Middle Eastern tinder box could explode with a mere spark from Israel. With Israel and Saudi Arabia on two sides, Mr Trump had the courage to present an anti-Palestine plan, which repudiated not only international consensus, but also previous American positions.

President Trump has never considered India an adversary, but he was the first US president to take India to task for being the king of tariffs and made an issue of the trade imbalance.

He was grateful to Mr Modi for his friendship and his efforts to lift millions of Indians out of poverty. But he accused India of making billions of dollars out of the US and not spending enough on Afghanistan.

Although the trade balance with China was much higher, Mr Trump used the same language to criticise India on trade policy. He also launched a mini trade war against India which India reciprocated.

He also pushed India to buy more weapons systems from the US and to cancel the missile defence system India had ordered from Russia. Mr Trump also wanted India to stop importing oil from Iran and impose other sanctions.

Above all, he wanted to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the festering Kashmir issue, even though he knew it was India's firm position that no mediation was necessary.

Mr Trump's decision to visit India is welcome and overdue, he has a definite agenda to bring India in line with his global strategy.

In anticipation of Mr Trump's demand that India should buy more weapons systems, India has already indicated a deal for helicopters worth Rs 25,000 crores (Rs 250 billion) and a missile system to defend Delhi.

Knowing that the way to Mr Trump's heart is through the barrel of a gun, India is likely to buy more from him. We know that those who buy weapons from him can do no wrong as in the case of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

If the order placed with Russia for the defence missile system is cancelled, it will gladden Mr Trump's heart even more.

There were indications that a trade deal would be finalised during his visit, but the report that the US trade representative has postponed his trip to Delhi has cast a shadow of doubt on the outcome. That will be considered a setback by Mr Trump.

It was only after signing a trade deal that Mr Trump announced that US-China relations had never been better than now and that Chinese President Xi Jinping had become a close friend.

Whether there is any progress on Mr Trump's agenda on Iran and Russia or not, another rejection of mediation between India and Pakistan will leave Mr Trump disappointed. In that case, he is likely to point out the war-like situation on the border and press for direct talks which have been stalled on account of continuing terrorism from Pakistan.

The slow normalisation in Kashmir will impress him, but he is likely to urge further liberalisation of the situation and the release of leaders in detention.

Mr Trump had mocked India's assistance programme for Afghanistan as 'building of libraries'. In his eagerness to pull out his troops from Afghanistan, he would like India to take a more proactive role which will be difficult if the new government in Afghanistan formed by the US includes the Taliban. If, in desperation, Mr Trump brings Pakistan back into the Afghan imbroglio, India will have another challenge.

Apart from trade issues, India has concerns about migration issues involving Indian technical personnel. Indian companies operating in the US have not been able to get appropriate personnel from India because of the slowing down of visas. Mr Trump has said he would permit more Indian technologists to come and settle in the US to build a strong America.

In an election year, he may not increase migrants, but may quietly allow Indian technologists to enter and work there. It is estimated that the IT industry would not be able to work without Indians for eight more years.

Even with all the risks, Mr Trump's arrival at this time will do Mr Modi a mountain of good. It will prove once again that bilateral relations transcend national issues even if a section of the people are agitated over some decisions. The wishful thinking in certain circles that India has lost its reputation as a democracy on account of the agitation over the citizenship issues will be proved wrong.

Mr Trump may have concerns about Kashmir in the context of his desire for mediation, but he will be supportive of India's discretion to choose the migrants it wants as he himself is doing.

For the rest, the dictum that differences should not be allowed to turn into disputes will take care of any glitch that may develop.

Mr Trump will undoubtedly have much to show his electorate not only in terms of the respect he can command In India, but also the hard cash to bring unemployment further down to qualify for re-election.

Mr Modi has already promised him large numbers at the 'Namaste Trump' event, surpassing the crowds at the 'Howdy Modi' event in Houston last September.

Mr Trump had some adversities in early 2020, but he has turned all of them to his advantage and there is a clear expectation that he has a chance to win a second term, particularly if any of the front runners of Iowa or New Hampshire emerges as the Democratic candidate. Lurking in the background is Michael Bloomberg who can match Mr Trump in money and business success.

Mr Trump has much to gain from a successful visit to India.


Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is currently the chairman, academic council and director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and director general, Kerala International Centre.
A long time columnist for Rediff.com, you can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

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