In 2008, Manmohan Singh, then-prime minister of India, whispered a barely audible compliment to President George W. Bush during their meeting, sending a collective gasp of disbelief through a gaggle of Indian journalists in the Oval Office. I was among the reporters present, and was startled to hear Singh, a man of exasperatingly few words, break into uncharacteristic hyperbole: “The people of India deeply love you,” to Bush, who was then little loved in his own country. But there was good reason for Singh’s emotionalism: Bush had made good on his promise for an India-specific nuclear deal, ending years of discrimination by the global nonproliferation regime.
Ahead of their meeting, President Trump welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “true friend.” Modi thanked Trump for the “warm personal welcome” via Twitter. But beyond protocol and diplomatic graces, Modi might not be able to convey any exaggerated affection on behalf of Indians, as Singh did with Bush.
For a brief period, Modi’s supporters celebrated the seeming similarities between the two leaders: Modi and Trump were both exterminators of liberal hypocrisy, hostile to mainstream media, tough on Islamist apologists and driven by Make in India or “America First.” Now, Modi’s followers disown suggestions of any commonality and view Trump with amusement, disdain or morbid fascination at what he might (un)do next. For many Indians, his erratic and dysfunctional decisions have put a softer filter on the memory of Bush’s warts and catapulted Modi to “global statesman” levels, despite some controversies and challenges at home. Modi’s firm commitment to the Paris climate accord compared with Trump’s impetuous pullout illustrated this.
Modi’s White House trip takes place under very different circumstances from his first visit as prime minister in 2014 after a contentious 10-year visa ban. Then, in the presence of many elected American officials, Modi put on a grand show of strength at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The pageantry of his official introduction to the world stage was likened to a rock concert. But this time, with the negative sentiment in the Trump regime around immigrants, visas and jobs, there is no context for showmanship. Washington is consumed by domestic political strife and allegations around Russian links to the administration, and Trump’s flamboyance and volatility have necessarily mellowed Modi’s penchant for making a big statement.
Instead, when Trump and Modi meet in person for the first time this week, the Indian prime minister’s main task will be to draw a distracted president’s attention to a relationship he has pretty much ignored so far.
Modi will likely approach Trump with a clinical pragmatism, focusing on the big picture more than the perfect photo op. He is aware that the U.S.-India strategic consensus will outlast the yo-yo swerves of Trump’s government. India will need a Trump policy in the short term and a U.S. policy in the long term.
Trump has already managed to rattle India’s cage. He has made a stunning turnaround on China and courted President Xi Jinping, encouraged protectionism on visas for India’s skilled workers, projected India as some sort of rogue beneficiary of the climate-change accord, and ratcheted up tensions on India’s trade surplus with the United States.
Some irritants between the two countries are pretty much hopeless causes. Trump’s economic protectionism on H-1B work visas for skilled Indian professionals is one example; Trump won’t dial back promises to bring jobs back and India won’t spend endless energy on it.
Given Trump’s love-me, love-me-not chaos with China, President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy may be a thing of the past. Under both Obama and Bush, security in Asia and the rise of China were central elements of strategic ties with India. In 2015, Obama and Modi unveiled a joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. At first it seemed that Trump would pursue a newly minted aggression with Beijing when he questioned the “One China” policy by recognizing Taiwan as a separate entity. His secretary of state threatened a blockade in the South China Sea. And then there was the famed Trumpian Twitter angst about China. But just as abruptly Trump did an about-face. His U-turn on China extended to U.S. attendance at the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative in Beijing. India boycotted the meeting, objecting to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through territory India regards as sovereign. Realizing that in the Age of Trump, it can make no here-and-now assumptions about the United States, the Modi government has strategically diversified its diplomatic outreach, reaching out to Germany, France and Japan.
The softness Trump has shown for Beijing, coupled with China’s protective cosseting of Islamabad, also raises doubts about how much India can expect the United States to speak up on Pakistan-backed terrorism. Trump’s tough line on the Islamic State and jihadist violence is of little relevance to India if it does not translate into punitive pressure on Pakistan and include extremist groups that Trump may not have even been briefed on.
The one anticipated development for the Modi-Trump meeting is the purchase of 22 Guardian drones for the Indian navy, a deal worth more than $2 billion and the first of its kind by a non-NATO country. U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin has also inked a deal with the Tata group to produce F-16 Block 70 fighters in India as well. But India is no believer in checkbook diplomacy. “We are not a typical ally — we aren’t a client state, we aren’t dependent on the U.S. for a security umbrella and we don’t cheat like China. This relationship exists because of our inherent worth,” said an Indian official. For “America First,” Narendra Modi will emphasize “India First” and “Trump’s unpredictability could go either way.”