By George Abraham
Vice Chairman, Indian Overseas Congress, USA
The visit by President Donald Trump to India was a massive success in terms of optics; however, only time will tell whether any substantial progress was made in terms of trade or other pressing issues in the burgeoning relationship. The United States and India have a lot in common: democratic systems of governance that respect individual freedom and promote equal justice. Therefore, it will only be surprising if India and the U.S., the largest and oldest democracies, do not forge a stronger bond.
Although India followed a non-alignment policy during the cold war period, the relationship between these two countries continued to improve in the last two decades. The US-India civil nuclear deal during the UPA government under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh was indeed a turning point in paving the way for a more strategic partnership between these two nations.
However, the current dynamics between Trump and PM Modi may have roots in their mutual concerns about tackling the scourge of transnational Islamic terrorism and checking the growing Chinese power that could destabilize the region. Trump’s unhappiness with Pakistan as a reliable partner may have also played into this newly emerging equation. Modi and Trump are conservative nationalists who rail against immigrants and are intolerant to any criticism.
The arms sale agreement that was signed during Trump’s visit seals the deal for long-term cooperation in the area of security. However, trade is an entirely different matter for Trump, who has openly chastised India for its high tariffs and trade surpluses. With an America First philosophy, Trump may run a hard bargain in that regard to please his political base back at home and to keep his critics at bay. India may then be forced to take stock of the reality and may act in their own best interests.
It is quite extraordinary that Mr. Modi, who was banned from entering the U.S. due to his terrible human rights record, has now become a close ally of the United States. Despite the humongous efforts by the Modi administration to show India in a positive light, serious riots have erupted in parts of East Delhi only a few miles from where Mr. Trump was being feted. For someone who is never reluctant to offer an opinion, Trump sidestepped the question on CAA and thereby shielding Modi from any criticism.
Modi has proven to the world that one can be an authoritarian leader in a vibrant democracy. He has succeeded in decimating the opposition, silencing the critics, and consolidating power through the weakening of its revered institutions. Trump’s fascination for authoritarian rulers is no secret, and he even called Egypt’s strongman Abdel Sisi once as his favorite dictator. His reverence for Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Kim Jong-Un of North Korea is quite well known. It may partly explain the mutual admiration each has for the other. “I remember India before, and it was very torn,” Trump said after his meeting with Modi last year. “There was a lot of dissension, a lot of fighting. And he brought it all together, like a father would bring it together. Maybe he’s the father of India.”
As it has been said, Trump looks more like a Salesman than Statesman. Minorities and Dalits in India who are under everyday assault by the Modi regime expected an American President to speak out in support of our shared values that promote freedom, liberty, and equal justice under the law. Trump also appears to champion the cause of religious freedom back home and even spoke about it on many forums that include the United Nations. Yet, he has decided to go mostly silent on these critical issues to the delight of his hosts. By doing so, Trump has further helped Modi to tighten his grip on power while also weakening the forces that resist his drive towards making India a Hindu nation.