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Modi and Trump: Strongmen at Work

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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Modi and Trump pursue the art of the deal

IN THE 24 HOURS after Narendra Modi made his third visit to the United States as Prime Minister, the mainstream American media, inclined always to offer patronising lessons in journalism to media from other lands, gave us no analysis of the Indian leader’s day-and-a-half in Washington other than giggly deconstructions of Modi’s hug-and-handshake routine with Donald Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House.

I concede that it was a moment of awkward physical contact, and that the second hug seemed to catch the American president by surprise (not to mention that last, Bollywood-style clutch of Trump’s hand by Modi); but to reduce a visit by the leader of the world’s biggest democracy to the capital of the world’s oldest to little more than a review of masculine choreography was to miss completely the point of it all, which is that Modi’s visit was Trump’s biggest bilateral foreign policy success to date.

The American media has never cared much for India. Its correspondents in Delhi are just as hackneyed as those from British publications, grabbing at low-hanging fruit—caste, communal violence, Indian English, colonial relics—but writing about it with none of the flair of the Brits. (Earnestness is the bane of American journalism.) American TV ignores India, and newspaper editorials about India tend to be full of lectures about what the country must—it is always ‘must’—do or not do. There was next to nothing on Modi in the US press before Modi’s visit, and there was next to nothing after.

What little there was, in fact, was written by Modi himself. On June 26th, the day he met Trump, the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal ran a piece by the Indian Prime Minister, brokered by Navtej Sarna, India’s ambassador in Washington. The piece contained no surprises, but it was an elegant account of the issues that matter most to India in its dealings with the United States. It bears re-reading several days later, for its emphasis on the economic relationship between the two countries foreshadowed much of what appeared in the Joint Statement issued by both countries at the end of Modi’s visit.

Modi has returned to India, I would think, a very satisfied man. He had reason to be nervous about his first meeting with Trump. The lazier analysts (particularly on the left) have tended to see in both men a likeness of sorts: both are of the right, robustly (sometimes gaudily) nationalist, with authoritarian temperaments. And both preside over cabinets whose members they largely overshadow.

But Modi and Trump are also vastly different. Modi is ascetic and, dare I say it, asexual. Trump is a monument to vulgarity, now on his third marriage, who was a ‘pussy-grab’ away—one thought last year—from losing the presidential election. Modi is a man who has mapped his political landscape meticulously from an early age. He is an Organisation Man, a party worker, a politician who has spent his entire adult life in pursuit of an ideology—Hindutva— that today stands on the brink (some say) of upending India’s secular civitas.

Trump, by contrast, is a man of political fads. What he believes today may well fade from his brain tomorrow, or be replaced— willy-nilly—by an idea that contradicts its precursor. China is a currency manipulator today. China isn’t one tomorrow. China hasn’t changed. Trump has. Only weeks ago, Trump inveighed against India while walking away from the Paris Accord on climate change, accusing India, in effect, of buying into the global treaty in cynical pursuit of monetary aid. On June 26th, the same Trump declared in the Rose Garden that India (“a very, very incredible nation”) had no truer friend than he. “I have always had a deep admiration for your country and its people, and a profound appreciation for your rich culture, heritage and traditions.” (How wonderful it would have been to have had the opportunity to interrupt Trump at that stage in his speech and ask, “Mr President, could you name three Indian traditions that you appreciate?”)

Modi is a man of structure and belief, of unyielding consistency, and an almost robotic sense of destiny. Trump is all over the place, laddish one minute, avuncular the next, bitchy the moment after, and, not infrequently, incoherent. Modi would never have a ‘covfefe’ moment, on Twitter or elsewhere. Modi would never spend half his waking hours waging verbal war on the media. His style is to ignore the media, to freeze it out. No wonder that the two men—on India’s insistence—took no questions from the press after their briefings in the Rose Garden. The irony was rich, and depressing: at the insistence of the world’s biggest democracy, the press was not permitted to speak at the residence of the leader of the world’s oldest democracy. One learns, also, that Modi’s refusal to take questions didn’t faze the Trump White House one bit. Why would it? Its own daily press briefings have descended into open warfare with the American media.

Trump has reason to be very pleased about his meeting with Modi. Here was a bilateral encounter with a powerful, elected leader of a serious country, and it was apparent that he enjoyed Modi’s respect. This was in contrast to the clumsy theatre one witnessed at Trump’s meetings at the White House with Angela Merkel and Theresa May

Modi would not have made a demand of this kind from the Obama White House. There would have been questions after the briefings. Banal ones, most likely, but questions nonetheless.

SO WHY WOULD Modi have been nervous before his meeting with Trump? The obvious reason is Trump’s unpredictability as a man, and as a president for whom precedents appear to be of little importance. The Indian Prime Minister and his team will have observed the manner in which Trump has appeared to go out of his way to ruffle NATO partners, cutting an almost boorish swathe through Europe and disconcerting everyone from Angela Merkel to dear old Theresa May (even though she’d rather die than admit it). Trump’s boorishness may even have cost the Tories a few seats in the recent British elections, with voters there seeing Mrs May as the poodle (of sorts) of a man whose first reaction after the latest terrorist outrage in London was to enter into a war of words with that city’s mayor.

The other cause for concern in India will have been the fact that Modi had enjoyed a remarkably warm relationship with Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor in the White House. The chemistry between the two—erstwhile Black community organiser and RSS pracharak, respectively—was an improbable one. It was as if each had made up his mind to pay no heed to the other man’s core ideology. Modi didn’t see Obama as a liberal, multicultural softy, and Obama didn’t see Modi as a hardline religious nationalist; instead, they dealt with each other as leaders of two democracies that had made profound strides toward a de facto alliance.

Obama’s core supporters in the US did not care for Modi. The New York Times has been notably queasy about him, and the liberal human rights lobby has never quite come to terms with the fact that Modi—a man once denied a visa to the US— is Prime Minister of India. Trump’s core voters, on the other hand—and to the extent that they have an informed view of India’s Prime Minister—see in Modi a man who shares Trump’s implacable enmity toward Islamist terrorism. (In fact, Trump said “Islamic” terrorism in his Rose Garden briefing. Obama could scarcely bring himself to utter either word—Islamist or Islamic—in his eight years in office.)

The Indian side came to Washington deter mined to emphasise that they had a shopping list in addition to the usual raft of political and strategic concerns

“Both our nations,” Trump said on June 26th, “have been struck by the evils of terrorism, and we are both determined to destroy terrorist organisations and the radical ideology that drives them.” It was no coincidence that Syed Salahuddin, the Kashmiri leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was declared a ‘Global Terrorist’ by the United States on the day Modi landed in Washington. It mattered not to India that the man had been a terrorist for some 27 years before Washington sought to treat him as one, too; instead, the designation was seen as a gesture of robust solidarity from a new American administration that was, itself, seeking a level of political comfort with India.

Trump and Modi are two canny men, and their first meeting needs to be evaluated as much by reference to what wasn’t said as by what was. For months now, Indian businesses in the tech and services sectors have been afraid that their H1-B visa privileges could be curtailed by an American administration that is unabashedly protectionist is certain spheres. Modi was under immense domestic pressure to raise the issue with Trump, but he did not (except in the most cursory way), preferring to focus on matters of shared agreement. Modi is aware that Indian companies abuse the visa system; he is also aware that this is a subject on which Trump was unlikely to budge. A senior Indian diplomat told me, “There is no point in rubbing up Trump the wrong way on an issue on which, frankly, we’re on a sticky wicket. The H1-B issue will have to be addressed when discussions are taken up in the US Congress, where we enjoy a measure of bipartisan support. We will, I presume, lobby strongly there, relying on backing from US business and industry.”

Modi knew that with Trump, it’s a case of asking what you can do for him, not what he can do for you. This means doing business with America, and the Indian side came to Washington determined to emphasise that they had a shopping list in addition to the usual raft of political and strategic concerns. Natural gas (fracked, of course) received explicit mention in Trump’s remarks, including an unscripted quip that he was “trying to get the price up a bit”. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Modi had already adverted to the fact that ‘in coming years, Indian companies will import energy in excess of $40 billion from the US’. And there are to be purchases of planes, and drones—and much else, all of which had Trump the businessman-president licking his lips.

You might say that Modi bought his way into Trump’s affections, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that wouldn’t be the whole picture either. With US-China relations on the cusp of a return to full-bore tension, Modi let it be known that India is willing to work as a strategic partner—with limits, of course—in any American project to contain a China that is intent on rewriting the rules of international relations. Those wise to the ways of Beijing were not surprised when the Chinese lodged a protest with India on the day Modi met Trump, alleging incursions into China by Indian troops in the Sikkim sector. (India, naturally, has a quite different account of what happened, in an incident that occurred in early June.)

The Joint Declaration issued by Trump is remarkable in many ways. Unlike previous declarations after the meetings between Obama and Modi in 2014, 2015, and 2016, this one is a model of concision and clarity. It goes relatively easy on the usual bilateral pieties, avoids talk (naturally) of climate change, and offers two significant strategic breakthroughs for India. The first is its novel use of the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ as a formal strategic sphere. (Modi, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, wrote of ‘the large maritime space of the Indo-Pacific’.)

India and the US are now ‘committed to a set of common principles for the region, according to which sovereignty and international law are respected and every country can prosper’. The text then lists principles, including the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, and of resolving maritime disputes peacefully, that are obviously directed at China. In his remarks at the Rose Garden, Trump had said that the American and Indian militaries “are working every day to enhance cooperation…And next month, they will join together with the Japanese navy to take [part] in the largest maritime exercise ever conducted in the vast Indian ocean.”

And then there’s Pakistan, on which Trump and Modi appear to have converged so considerably that Chaudhry Nisar, Pakistan’s interior minister, complained afterward that the US is “speaking India’s language”. In a refreshing departure from its precursors, the latest US-India Joint Statement explicitly refers to ‘cross-border terrorist attacks’. The US has now endorsed a document that states that Pakistan hosts on its soil terrorist groups that carry out attacks on India.

TRUMP HAS REASON to be very pleased about his meeting with Modi. Here was a bilateral encounter with a powerful, elected leader of a serious country, and it was apparent that he enjoyed Modi’s respect. This was in contrast to the clumsy theatre one witnessed at Trump’s meetings at the White House with Angela Merkel and Theresa May. For all the potential complexities, his huddles with Modi were surprisingly uncomplicated. There was a will on both sides to make a public success of the meeting: Modi needed one because of the absurdly high expectations his visit had generated in India; and Trump wanted one because, quite frankly, he could use the endorsement of a global leader who isn’t a monarch or a dictator from the Middle East.

There’s also the question of the Indian diaspora in the United States, not many of whom are Trump voters, but who are, in large numbers, cheerleaders for Modi. There are three million people of Indian origin in America, about 1 per cent of the population. They are, in the main, prosperous, highly educated, and Democrats. How Trump would love to woo some of them over to his side. It’s a tall order, given their voting history and their lingering sense that the Republican Party is less welcoming of non-Whites than the Democrats. But one way for Trump to win a slice of the Indian- American vote is to be seen more often with Modi. He knows that. And Modi knows that. This could be the start of a very effective partnership.