Since the beginning of 2020, the Indian government has been upping its diplomatic game. The year started with a visit of a group of envoys from 17 countries, including the US, to Kashmir. India will also be hosting the Shanghai Corporation Organization meeting later this year. Furthermore, in what can be considered an attempt at thawing the otherwise frozen relations between the two neighbors, New Delhi seems to be contemplating inviting Pakistan for the meeting. In a much-needed breather for the government, the heated domestic politics is cooling too.
Adding to these developments is the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump, starting 24 February, which has opened several possibilities for India. The two leaders met last in September 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US and spoke at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event at Houston, attended by a massive crowd of 40,000 people. The Prime Minister walked hand-in-hand with the US President and tacitly endorsed him for a second term in 2020, saying ‘Ab ki Baar Trump Sarkaar’. The coming together of both the leaders in the US showcased the growing political clout of the Indian community in the United States. In fact, Trump will be doing a sequel of Howdy Modi most likely in Ahmedabad. This is a walk up to the 2020 US elections for Trump, nine months away. It will serve both the administrations considering that Gujaratis are known for their business acumen, and their support for Modi and have a sizeable presence in the US. Trump’s business-like persona adds flavor to such an interaction.
Trump is currently on a high domestic wave after having survived an impeachment attempt. The US economy and employment numbers remain strong, something that India critically needs to emulate. The US has recently concluded a “Phase One” deal with China. Trump also recently signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, providing stronger protection for workers and the digital economy, expanding markets for American farmers, and encouraging auto manufacturing. In the upcoming visit, India and the US are expected to sign a trade deal and a pact for further enhancing defense cooperation. The issues that existed between the two countries over the past several months—trade, Russia, Iran, and peace talks in Afghanistan have mostly been ironed out. The leaders will also talk about the strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific with a greater focus on connectivity, infrastructure, and security.
It becomes imperative to compare Trump’s standalone visit to that of President Bill Clinton’s visit in March 2000. Clinton’s visit practically ended India pariah position vis-a-vis the United States. India and the US had shared an uncomfortable relationship since India’s independence. Clinton broke the jinx of 22 years of no US Presidential visit to India, after President Jimmy Carter in 1978. After Clinton, every subsequent US President has visited India. Clinton’s visit marked a shift away from the US from its Cold War alliance with Pakistan and towards a strategic, futuristic, and economic relationship with India. The Democrat President received a hero’s welcome in India despite having been impeached at home. As an eighth standard school student, the author remembers soaking in lessons of International Relations and diplomacy while being glued to the television as he charmed his way to the Indian Parliament as well as dancing with rural Rajasthani women with ease. He brought a sympathetic touch to his visit when he visited victims of the Indian Airlines jet that was hijacked and taken to Kandahar. He gave the feeling that the US was genuinely looking for a partnership with Indians bringing half a century of mistrust and suspicion to an end. The US President was open about Pakistan’s hand in terrorism, and his visit to Pakistan lasted only for a couple of hours while he stayed in India for five days visiting five different cities.
Trump’s visit in the election year is also set to charm India. From the “Kem Cho” Trump event (more vernacularly sound), to signing landmark trade and defence deals, all will be celebrated in India. Trump’s visit will likely see a mix of optics and substance.
*** The author is currently an independent analyst of geopolitical issues, was earlier associated with Bangalore-based NIAS, and was also a Fulbright Adjunct Faculty at American University, Washington DC ***