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View: Looking beyond the razzmatazz of President Trump's visit

US is an overbearing friend intent on maintaining its global primacy. It is even more so in Trump era.

, TOI Contributor|
Last Updated: Feb 26, 2020, 09.05 PM IST
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There was a surfeit of touchy-feely hugs and embraces between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi on the first day of the US president’s visit to India, belying the case for Namaste in the time of coronavirus. It devolved into officious protocol, interspersed with warm, business-friendly handshakes, on day two. Overall, the engaging body language, expansive gestures, and soaring words brought home in both countries and broadcast to the world the forging of a strong, perhaps unprecedented, alliance between India and the United States.

Friendship with the US is fraught with friction – and fiction – even at the best of times. For the most part, and with most countries, it involves an unequal relationship with one party frequently invoking God. Ask the Mexicans, one of whose leaders exclaimed, “Poor Mexico… so far from God and so close to the United States!” Or Canadians, who often say, “God Bless America, but God help Canada to put up with them!” Washington is an overbearing and demanding friend intent on maintaining its global primacy. It is even more so during the Trump era: America First.

If one goes by the premise that it is better to be ignored by Washington than be courted by it, India may have been lucky that for the nearly half century it was at the margins of American interest. That time ended in the late 1990s. Successive Indian prime ministers over the past 22 years have taken New Delhi closer and closer to Washington – none more than Prime Minister Narendra Modi – bridging the chasm that developed during half a century of Cold War.

Much of this embrace stems from India’s emergence as a potential economic powerhouse and enduring people-topeople ties. Even during the Cold War, when New Delhi was widely seen as Soviet camp follower, more Indians went to the US – and were welcomed – than to Russia. As a result, the US is now home to more than 4 million Indian-Americans who see it as their karma bhoomi, and around 200,000 Indian students at any given time. No country in the world has hosted and absorbed more. This is why some of the world’s top companies such as Microsoft, Google and IBM, have CEOs of Indian-origin.

Despite this, the US-India economic relationship has underperformed and has been underserved, particularly when compared to China, after a decade of rapid growth. Although trade ballooned from teen billions at the turn of the century to nearly $100 billion by 2015, it has not keep pace with the strategic intent/goal of the US to support India’s rise as a global power and a counterweight to China. In fact, the projection during the Obama-Biden-Kerry-Clinton years that trade could be bumped up to $500 billion remains as distant as New Delhi’s hopes of ramping its GDP to $5 trillion by 2025.

Can Trump, swaggering self-proclaimed business-friendly dealmaker, crank it up? Yes, he can, but not simply by shanghaiing India to buy more American arms (by stoking China fears) and goods to bridge the trade deficit, which seems to be his primary agenda of late. The ego-boosting trip to India may fulfill that but for a more lasting relationship, the economic pie needs to grow for both sides. America First, and US goal of maintaining its primacy, needs to be reconciled with Make in India, and New Delhi aspiration to grow as a strong nation. The US needs to cut New Delhi some slack and support its growth too, including allowing India to export its biggest asset – skilled manpower.

There are plenty of pitfalls, not to speak of differing perceptions over how to manage all this. The US needs to accept that there might not always be total convergence between the two sides despite all the bonhomie. Take energy for instance. President Trump is a hog for hydrocarbons. There was nary a mention of renewables during the 36-hour clinch. What happens to India should November 2020, or even November four years from now, returns a renewable evangelist to the White House? Nothing spoke more eloquently of what hydrocarbons have done to India and the world than the smoggy, hazy backdrop to the presidential visit. And why should India have to bring in hydrocarbons from halfway across the world, forsaking friends from across the Gulf, some of whom have been helpful interlocutors vis-a-vis India’s troubles with Pakistan?

Then take dairy. There is no compelling reason for India to open its market to American dairy simply because its people are switching to plantbased milk and the country is literally overflowing with milk (not necessarily of kindness) with 40% drop in milk consumption. Not to speak of Trump wanting to win Wisconsin, America #1 dairy state. India has just about become dairy sufficient (if not efficient) after decades of hard work. Plus, there is the small matter of dietary sensitivity involving what American livestock is fed.

These are acute differences and tough questions to navigate through in a complex world, where, to flog the cliche, there are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests. Still, given the many common ideals attributed – warts and all – to both India and the United States, a trustful, respectful, and durable partnership is a must. Modi and Trump will not be leaders forever, but the US and India, and its people, who are now joined at the hip, will be around for a long time.
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