By M D Nalapat
The visit of President Trump to India is about more than a meeting between two friends, Donald and Narendra. It is a sign that the relationship between Delhi and Washington is now poised for a breakthrough.
NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is about the only world leader to have excellent personal relations with US President Donald J. Trump despite being on cordial terms with his predecessor, Barack H. Obama. Both are wary of conventional media, preferring to reach directly to the people through the medium of the internet. Modi’s motto is “India First”, while that of Trump is “America First”. While both have core support from a clearly defined base, each points to the economy as the strong point in their resume as Heads of Government of the two biggest democracies in the world. Trump and Modi both have political and other opposition in their respective countries that are willing to go the extra mile to defeat them at the polls. Modi appears to be secure in his present job until 2024, while Trump looks with confidence on once again besting an ideologically fractured Democratic Party on 8 November. Winning a second term could mean the difference between freedom and incarceration for President Trump and some of his family members, as the numerous bureaucrats in the Washington Beltway, who are unreformed Clintonites (and therefore Never Trumpers), are sharpening their knives to tangle him as well as close members of the Trump family in a welter of cases fuelled less by fact than by prejudice against this very unusual of US Presidents who has exhibited his disdain for the Establishment by filling his team with outliers and outsiders in a manner last seen since Jimmy Carter occupied the White House at the start of the 1980s. In contrast, Prime Minister Modi has been careful to retain within his administration seasoned elements of the bureaucracy rather than take a chance on those without government experience. Indeed, the manner of functioning of Trump and Modi has been a study in contrasts, with the US President going full steam ahead on tossing aside conventional advice and pumping up the economy with assistance from the Federal Reserve Board, which has printed over $2 trillion in dollar bills during President Trump’s term, while Prime Minister Modi has cut back on expenditure almost across the board in an effort at keeping the fiscal deficit to levels that the global financial community would find attractive. Both President Trump as well as Prime Minister Modi dislike sending troops into conflict. While Modi has been as insistent as his BJP predecessor, A.B. Vajpayee in refusing to allow troops from India to deploy abroad except in the usually anodyne circumstances provided by UN peacekeeping missions, Trump has not hesitated to hand over a lifeline to ISIS in Syria by ditching the Kurds who were fighting them and stepping back, as President Erdogan of Turkey (who has been an open supporter of religious fighters who are almost entirely indistinguishable from regulars in ISIS formations) moved into Northern Syria in an effort at saving elements of ISIS and its clones from being overwhelmed by Russia, Syria and Iran. The US President arrives in India after having signed what, in effect, is an instrument of surrender to the Taliban in Afghanistan, throwing President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan National Army to the wolves in much the same inexplicable way as he forced the Kurds to surrender their well-defended forward posts to the Turkish military less than two years ago. Despite his claims about destroying terror hubs, in reality President Trump has sometimes been less than helpful to the many determined professionals in the Pentagon who seek to extinguish the fires lit by ISIS. Part of such ambivalence may be explained by his strange affinity towards the current leader of global Wahhabism, President R.T. Erdogan of Turkey. However, a world leader with the intellectual capacity of President Trump is unlikely to remain tied to such policy missteps for much longer.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND NEEDED
It must be added that Prime Minister Modi has remained true to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He has been firm that India will not send boots on the ground in Afghanistan, despite the urging of those outside the government who point to the security challenges India will face should the Taliban once again establish control over Afghanistan the way they did with the backing of President William J. Clinton in the 1990s. There is, of course, a halfway house between sending troops and doing nothing to prevent the Taliban from its Bajwa-Trump-sponsored forward trajectory. This would be to train much larger numbers of the Afghan military and security services than is presently the case, and assist Afghanistan to set up ordinance factories that could provide the war materiel needed to roll back the inevitable moves of the Taliban to regain complete control over a country crucial to the security of Iran, Central Asia and India. Such a move would find favour in the Pentagon, which would seek to assist in such an effort by New Delhi. The difficulty facing India is that President Trump has long adopted a mindset that regards only dollars and cents of being of any value in the world, and assisting India to roll back the Taliban would involve expenditure and concessions that Trump seems loath at present to give. The good news is that US corporates active in defence production are anyway looking to India not simply as a market but as a production base. Given the porous nature of technology seepage in China, the only other country that has equivalent reserves of skilled manpower to handle mass production of defence and other hi-tech items is India. Whether it be Lockheed or Apple, the case for relocating production facilities from China to India is becoming stronger. Modi has the capacity to ensure changes in the regulatory and overall administrative matrix in India as would attract investment on the massive scale witnessed in China during the 1990s. Given the importance of a close defence and security alliance with India to evolving US interests, it is doubtful that such a substitution of China with India in US and EU supply chains of defence and other hi-tech manufactures would meet with resistance from the 45th President of the US. Such a partial shift of production lines would in particular assist both EU as well as US-based entities to meet the challenge offered by high-quality competitive wares from Russia and China. The future is likely to witness a joint Sino-Russian push in ramping up weapons sales to the Middle East and elsewhere, and a supply chain alliance between the EU, the US and India could effectively compete with the strengthening Sino-Russian production base, including in such matters as Artificial Intelligence.
A SEAT AT THE UNSC
As important as President Trump will be First Lady Melania Trump, First Daughter Ivanka Trump and First Son-in-law Jared Kushner, all of whom will be accompanying the US President during his brief but significant visit to India. Ivanka Trump already has had exposure to India through earlier visits, and has established contact with elements of the Indian diaspora resident in the US and elsewhere. Her open and syncretic mindset has ensured a deep understanding of the wellsprings of Indian culture and tradition, and hopefully this visit will add to her affinity with one of the world’s oldest surviving civilisations, besides the Jewish civilisation to which she belongs through marriage. Senior Advisor to the President, Jared Kushner has a considerable degree of influence over policy, and should he make it part of his list of priorities to get the US to place the question of India’s entry into the UN Security Council permanent membership, that would represent a great leap forward for Indian diplomacy in the era of S. Jaishankar. Washington could place India, Brazil, Japan and Germany separately onto the UN agenda, leaving it to each country to secure the votes needed for entry into a club that Jawaharlal Nehru passed up the opportunity of joining in the 1950s out of his commitment to the People’s Republic of China. Of the four countries, India has the better chance of entry, and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) ought to make it clear that any earlier insistence of “All or None” of the four powers has been replaced by each country separating itself in practice, so that it is not obligatory on countries favouring one of the four (Germany, Japan, India and Brazil) to have to back the others as well. China, for example, may decide to back two or three of the four, while the other members of the UNSC and the UN General Assembly would do the same. Each country could be separately placed on the UN agenda by the US, should Jared Kushner succeed in persuading President Trump of the advantages to the US of such a course. Should a permanent member of the UNSC block India despite New Delhi being supported by the other four, such a move needs to have substantial and long-term effects on relations, both political as well as economic. Given the excellent personal chemistry between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping, it is likely that Beijing will support India as a Permanent UNSC Member, most likely without a veto. Rather than wait for a time when the five powers with a veto decide to extend that privilege to another, it would be best for India to accept a permanent seat even if it is not given veto power. The UNSC could have more Permanent Members (including the veto-wielding five) and ten Non-Permanent Members, thereby remaining a compact body with better representation than now within the list of Permanent Members.
First Lady Melania Trump has proved to be a dignified and charming presence in the White House, and it is not impossible that she will find her first albeit fleeting look of India such as to make her wish to come again, possibly during a second term for her husband. It may be remembered that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (who resembles Melania in physical appearance in numerous ways) visited India without her husband and created an enormous amount of goodwill for the US. A visit by the current First Lady may prove equally successful. Certainly her choice of a school to visit has gone down well among the people. The sights, sounds and colours of the country may inspire a First Lady who has repeatedly and obviously unfairly been underestimated by commentators. As for her husband, by his visit to India despite his grumblings on trade, it is clear that the world’s biggest democracy has resonance in the mind of the billionaire businessman turned politician. The fact is that global geopolitics calls for India to step up and partner with the US to ensure that key zones such as the Middle East do not plunge further into chaos. “Arab Spring” model changes in the power structure of GCC members would put at risk the occupations of several million citizens of India who are working there and sending substantial amounts of their savings back home. Prime Minister Modi has been careful to ensure that he is friendly to both the Crown Prince of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while also being close to the Prime Minister of Israel. Importantly, India has maintained its links with the Assad regime in Damascus, as it has with Teheran, despite grumbling from policymakers in the US, whose strategists seem to not have noticed the importance of a friendly country serving as a link between Washington and Teheran as well as Damascus. Despite the present stand within the Lutyens Zone that India will not send boots on the ground even to nearby Afghanistan, geopolitical currents are going to make that inevitable in future, just as it has made the recapture of PoK a necessary task for the Modi government.
POISED FOR A BREAKTHROUGH
The visit of President Trump to India is about more than a meeting between two friends, Donald and Narendra. It is a sign that the relationship between Delhi and Washington is now poised for a breakthrough. A phase in which India will replace China as the manufacturing platform of choice for the US, and Indian soldiers will replace (clearly unreliable) Pakistani troops tasked with securing the safety of the governments in the GCC. As for Afghanistan, the only way to undo the damage caused by Trump’s headlong retreat from Kabul is for India to step forward and help train the Afghan National Army, besides setting up not just schools but ordinance factories there. Missile systems developed by India need to be used against the Taliban once the present make-believe peace deal breaks down. The boundaries of the security zone of India extend into the Indo-Pacific, into the Middle East and into Central, Southeast and South Asia. The 24-25 February meeting of two of the four most influential leaders on the planet at Ahmedabad and Delhi reflects that 2020 reality.
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