US President Donald Trump is looking forward to his first official visit to India, when the optics will be very high indeed. It’s likely that Mr Trump will be pleased as punch as there will be huge crowds waiting for him during a roadshow with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two leaders share a particular chemistry that was apparent ever since they first met and bear-hugged. The theatrics of their friendship will be high as it was during Mr Modi’s visit to Texas, when Mr Trump joined him at the “Howdy, Modi!” event. The question is: how useful will this visit by a fourth consecutive US President be in advancing US-India ties, that are already strong and may have grown during Mr Trump’s four years at the White House.
A Trump promise on a trade deal with India has been in the air for some time. But it seems unlikely that an agreement will be signed during the February 24-25 visit as negotiations have run aground. Any deal to lessen India’s surplus, that shrank to about $16 billion from an earlier $30 billion, won’t be favourable. Losing more of the trade surplus with a big partner will only affect the smaller economy. The strategic part of their talks might prove more substantive, but once again it will be the US that will benefit more as it sells India more helicopters, and grants allow the acquisition of an integrated air defence weapon system. The missile shield will be more than a symbolic furtherance of ties as it means India would get even closer to being in the global American axis. As one of the world’s biggest arms importers, India should be in an advantageous position to negotiate terms. Realistically, it doesn’t work that way as quality comes in anything at a price.
It’s a quirk of history that India’s ties with the US have been warmer in the Republican years of the two George Bushes and now Mr Trump than it was during the Clinton and Obama years, particularly the latter, when the loss of US jobs was attributed to “Bangalored”, or outsourcing to India. The Trump administration makes no bones about employing more restrictive visa practices for immigrants as well as IT workers. It must be a disappointment to a large part of India’s highly qualified workforce that ties aren’t warm enough to permit exceptions. This is one area in which Mr Modi can lean on chemistry to make it better for aspiring Indians.
Given the circumstances in which the visit will take place, it’s clear that, having been absolved of charges in the Senate impeachment trial, Mr Trump will be the dominant personality at the summit. It’s no secret that the abrogation of Article 370 and the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act are big pinpricks, that will come up in the discussions. Reiterating the usual Indian line about these being “internal matters” may not cut much ice. India must do more to convince the US in order to ensure that bilateral relations remain cordial....