Both during the 2016 Presidential campaign trail and in his previous avatar as a billionaire businessperson, President Donald John Trump had integrated India as a core component of the global order in his policies and actions. However, since his inauguration on 20 January and subsequently, very little mention has been made of India in the statements made by spokespersons for the Trump administration, while, as yet, several posts relevant to relations with India (such as that of Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia) remain unfilled.
However, the incoming US Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, was informed two months ago that he was the White House choice for the post, and his nomination has been made official days before the 26 June first-ever meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Trump. The chemistry between the two will play an important role in ensuring that the India-US alliance, which was first initiated by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, becomes a reality during the terms in office of Trump and Modi. This may already have occurred during the first two years of NDA-II, which began in 2014, but for foot-dragging by those loyal to Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were disproportionately influential during the Barack Obama administration, relative to the Obama loyalists, although less so in the 44th US President’s second term (2013-17). It was known within the Washington Beltway—the US equivalent of India’s Lutyens Zone—that (former) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held the view that the benefits of a close alliance with India were “oversold” by Condoleezza Rice and others in the Bush team, and that far greater emphasis needed to be paid on ensuring improved relations with China, her rhetoric to the contrary. Although Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in particular, sought to speed up the process of partnering with India in matters of security, he met a stone wall on the Indian side with Defence Minister A.K. Antony, whose view of the world seems to have been unaffected since the 1960s’ heyday of the Soviet Union. While President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw the advantages, to both, of much closer India-US ties, the former was slowed down by the Clintonites in his administration and the latter by the leadership of the Congress Party, which went largely by the views of Antony in such matters, despite the close personal friendship between Sonia Gandhi and Hillary Clinton.
Once Prime Minister Modi came to power on 26 May 2014, he adopted a careful approach towards transforming the chemistry and approach of the Central higher bureaucracy, even inducting several into his team who were charter members of the Lutyens’ Zone. President Trump had (in the start of his administration) a different approach, looking for a speedy transition from the traditional Beltway policies and practices to a construct more in tune with current realities. However, the blowback that Trump has been receiving from the Beltway shows that Modi was correct in his caution, as overall the Prime Minister of India has in three years had a far more peaceful innings than the US President in just six months of his term. However, as a consequence of the high initial level of representation of the Lutyens’ Zone in the NDA II government, progress has been slower than expected on some fronts, including that of US-India relations. This despite the warmth and commitment of both President Obama as well as Prime Minister Modi to each other, and to much closer ties. Prime Minister Modi, now that he has mastered the intricacies of Central administration, rather than that of a state, may be expected to accelerate towards a much more transformative structure of governance, in this sense matching the attempted speeds of President Trump in his own administration. The bureaucratic speed-breakers to a much more rapid overall congruence and in several respects convergence of Washington-Delhi policies and actions are getting weaker on the Indian side. However, in Washington, the “Beltway” establishment (both Republican as well as Democrat) is still powerful enough to have a high degree of success in blocking many of President Trump’s initiatives.
EFFORTS TO DERAIL
In the US, the higher layers of the federal bureaucracy are composed of what may be termed “political bureaucrats”, i.e., officials chosen by politicians and usually on political considerations. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, apparently, still considers himself to be beholden to the entire leadership of the Republican Party, which he was while Chair of the Republican National Committee, forgetting that from 20 January onwards, his loyalty needed to be directed solely in the direction of President Trump. Over the past months, Priebus has instituted a quota system in the US administration, trying to select candidates for high positions that are a mix of those loyal to George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain and other Republican Party heavyweights. The problem is that these party grandees would be (not so secretly) delighted were Trump to be made to step down as early as possible. Hence, some of those appointed to high office by the Trump team see as their primary interest the failure of the 45th President of the United States to implement the agenda for which he was elected. Should the 26 June Trump-Modi meeting go well, it would redound to the credit of President Trump and lead substantially towards the long-cherished objective of an India-US alliance for security and prosperity that would in its effects span the globe. Hence, they are seeking to ensure that the meeting goes badly, by seeking to ensure that President Trump brings up issues that impinge on the sovereignty and self-respect of India, aware that Prime Minister Modi is 100% a nationalist, who would react strongly to any such efforts.
Among the issues they would like Trump to bring forward for discussion are issues relating to some NGOs operating in India that have been reported as having indulged in activities that have the potential to cause mayhem and violence. Other issues sought to be introduced into the conversation relate to some of the matters that have been exciting both foreign and domestic media during the past weeks, including matters of diet. Another googly being suggested is to bring up the cordial relations that Delhi has with both Teheran and Moscow, of course for valid geopolitical reasons. The expectation of those in the Trump administration who are eager to ensure friction, and not understanding, during the Modi-Trump summit is that the introduction of such issues into the Modi-Trump dialogue would visibly set relations back, thereby slowing down the momentum already generated by previous heads of government in both Delhi and Washington. However, the few within the Trump administration who are genuine loyalists of the 45th US President (and not of his Republican traducers) say that Trump is fully aware of such moves and will ensure that they are not given a chance to work. They say that while such issues may figure in some conversations, these would be at a lower level and privately.
From the very first days of his ascension to office, Prime Minister Modi showed his goodwill for the US by casting aside years of hostility manifested in the denial of a US visa to him and making thus far four successful visits to the US. Those familiar with President Trump say that he is in sync with Modi on the need for the US and India to work closely together, and can be expected to ensure that the Prime Minister’s potentially very consequential visit to Washington ends up as productive and ground-breaking. On the Indian side, although there are issues relating to US policy that are of concern, such as recent changes in visa rules in some categories or climate-related matters, these are expected to be dealt with at a lower level and mostly in closed-door sessions, so that the overall atmospheric remain cordial, an important consideration in a democracy. Prime Minister Modi is going the extra mile to ensure this, for example, by refusing to accept the invite by some organisations in cities across the US to address mass rallies of Indian-Americans during his latest US visit. Such meetings may give rise to anti-immigrant feelings in a section of Trump supporters about Indian-Americans, despite this group being the most law-abiding and high (average) tax-paying of any ethnic community settled in the US. Hence the expectations on the part of both Modi as well as Trump loyalists are that there would be a Trump-Modi breakthrough in US-India relations on 26 June. This would ensure that the two democracies move largely onto the same page in confronting threats and taking advantage of opportunities in the Indo-Pacific century.