Trump-mukt White House may not affect trade but WH will be more sensitive to Human Rights

India’s arms purchase from the US soared from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. The US also became India’s top trading partner, with two-way trade reaching $88.8billion in 2019-20<b></b>

Photo Courtesy: IANS
Photo Courtesy: IANS

Sarosh Bana

US President Donald Trump’s resistant exit from the White House draws the curtains on at least one long-standing bromance he had during his presidency, that with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This personal rapport between the two leaders had defined the Indo-US partnership that remained unshaken despite many a tempestuous Presidential move that often unsettled his Asian partner. The Prime Minister had been among the first world leaders to have made a congratulatory call to Trump upon his installation as President in January 2017.

Modi made a determined approach in fostering these bonds, visiting the United States as many as six times between September 2014 and September 2019, and staging an epic reception to Trump and his family during their visit to India in February, as both the countries were sweeping into the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Modi government lavished Rs130 crore (equivalent to $18 million) on the celebratory hysteria staged for the President’s 36-hour state visit. Before capacity crowds at a brand new 110,000-seat stadium in his home-state of Ahmedabad, Modi hailed Trump as his “close friend” and endorsed his re-election bid by declaring Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar, Hindi for “This (one more) time, a Trump government”, a take-off from his right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) own campaign slogan for the 2014 and 2019 Indian elections.

The slogan had been picked up by the Republican Hindu Coalition in the US while campaigning for Trump among Indian-Americans in the 2016 elections. The Coalition had besides donated $1.5 million towards Trump’s campaign. Modi had shrugged off criticism for such an unprecedented public certification that violated protocol and betrayed a personal bias towards the Democrats.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump had lauded the 3.8 million-strong Indian diaspora in the US for its talents and hard work, and had assured them that he was “a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India”. He had added, “Let me start by saying right up front that if I’m elected President, the Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House and I can guarantee you that.”

Modi has been deeply beholden to the US since President Obama’s revocation of the travel ban imposed by Washington on the Indian leader on his becoming Prime Minister in 2014. The US had barred Modi’s entry for his role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat when he was the state’s Chief Minister and which had taken a toll of 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

Many in India, however, wondered what was common between a canny leader like Modi and a US President who was so seriously bigoted, and flouted democracy, polarised society, indulged in hate speech, abused his office, perceived himself above the law, undermined minorities, fanned racism, mocked gender rights, demeaned the Opposition, compromised the Supreme Court, enjoined unwavering support from his administration, ruled by Twitter, stifled dissent, brutalised protestors, endorsed crony capitalism, mishandled Covid-19 treatment, spouted untruths, fudged facts, and sponsored an army of rabid vigilantes and trolls.

Trump’s departure may nonetheless not affect bilateral ties, as mutual interests have converged too distinctly to be distorted by a change in American leadership. The Democrat President aspirant Joe Biden after all has Indian-American Kamala Harris, who has a Tamil mother, as his running mate. He has, however, underscored what he would not himself do as US President by calling out the Modi government’s record on citizens’ rights, secularism and a pluralistic tolerant democracy.

In a policy paper released in June, the former US Vice President urged the Indian government to restore the rights of Kashmiris in India’s embattled territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and also expressed disappointment over the unprecedented religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the implementation of a similar National Register of Citizens (NRC). These issues have sparked protests across India, with 13 demonstrators dying in police firing in New Delhi even while Trump was being hosted in the capital during his visit. The President, however, made no comment on this episode.

In his dealings with India, Trump had leveraged his entrepreneurial acumen to model the Indo-US ‘strategic partnership’ into largely a transactional one. India was not reluctant to be the affable client, so long as it benefited reciprocally from time to time, its defence imports from the US surging as it craved the indulgence of the Trump administration to support, and validate, its aspirations for great power status.

In its anxiety to keep Washington in good humour, the Modi government deemed it fit to pivot its defence spending to the US. As a result, India’s arms purchases from the US soared from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020, with the US facilitating further deliveries through both its Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales processes. “These sales support thousands of jobs in both countries and help ensure the health of both countries’ defense industrial bases,” an official US statement noted.

The US also became India’s top trading partner, with two-way trade reaching $88.8 billion in 2019-20.

It seems unlikely that the effusive hand clasping and bear hugs will mark meetings between Modi and Biden. But the two-way relationship will progress inexorably on its own steam.

(The writer is Executive Editor, Business India, Regional Editor, Asia Pacific, Naval Forces)

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