The leadership of the world’s largest democracy and the world’s most affluent democracy will yet again engage in a public display of personal bonhomie, after the Howdy Modi jamboree in Houston, Texas, last year. The sold-out event of 50,000 participants in Houston had lived up to its billing as the largest gathering for a foreign leader (apart from the Pope) in the United States. Donald Trump has expressed his expectations from the impending visit to India by stating, “He (Modi) said we will have millions and millions of people…” and the Indian Prime Minister reciprocated the sentiment by reassuring that “India will accord a memorable welcome”.
Beyond the charm offensives and optics that accompany such visits, there are some personally relevant and strategically relevant stakes that underlie this visit. Both leaders are intrinsically fond of public attention and can elevate the relevance of any occasion to posit a larger-thanlife and compelling political stance. While both are undisputed leaders within their own political parties, they are also concerned about their electoral prospects in recent times ~ Donald Trump with the impending Presidential elections in November and Narendra Modi with the recent state election results.
However, the prospect of further warmth in the Indo-US dynamics augurs well for both personally in terms of political gratification. For Donald Trump the 4 million Indian-Americans offers a sizeable scale of ‘swing’ voters in the Republican kitty (as the 2016 Presidential elections had still resulted in a pro-Hillary preference). The election this November is poised for a tight finish. The fact that the Indian- American diaspora is also influential amongst the most affluent communities that can contribute substantially to the Trump campaign, makes it even more relevant.
From the Indian Prime Minister’s perspective, the personal equation with the US President further buttresses his claims of being a significant ‘global leader’ that fits in well with the muscular-nationalistic imagery that his party has assiduously cultivated. Both leaders need an immediate dose of lowhanging, good press. The implied Kodak-moment in the ‘Kem Chho’ razzmatazz at the inauguration of the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad (ostensibly the world’s largest), affords just the right backdrop, size and theatrics to do the political magic.
More importantly, the geostrategic dynamics of the current global order are so poised that they naturally lend themselves towards the ‘pivot’ opportunity for India, that was ironically invoked by Donald Trump’s bete noire, Hillary Clinton. As the Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Hillary had favoured co-opting India more strategically ~ “The United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future,” she said.
Since then, the underlying and dominant tensions in the critical Sino- US realm have deteriorated substantially and the strategic relevance of India as the only viable counterpoise, has only strengthened. The renaming of the former United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) to United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) reflects the Indian angularity. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) entailing the Sino-wary nations like the United States, Japan, Australia and India is yet another initiative that is seen to be an obvious response to the emergence, assertion and belligerence of the Chinese footprint.
Clearly, the United States recognises the temerity and scale of the Chinese threat, and for that it needs a substantial regional power to force-multiply its own efforts, and therein, the only option is India. Towards the same objective, the United States has opened its military-economic-diplomatic imperatives to the preferences of India. Exerting pressure on Islamabad to sentence the Pakistani fugitive, Hafiz Saeed, just weeks before President Trump’s trip to India, is certainly not coincidental.
Already the access to cuttingedge American military hardware and exchange of sensitive information is under way with the Apache groundattack helicopters, To that can be added the Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, SIG Sauer 716 Rifles and M-777 ultralight howitzers. Now, the US State Department has further cleared the way for the possible sale of an Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) for an estimated $1.8 billion. This would include advanced radars, missile systems, guidance and control sections, electrical optical/ infrared (EO/IR) sensor systems, cannisters/ launchers and terminals as part of the composite package.
This ready access suggests a basic US comfort in extending advanced weaponry to India without any accompanying fear of its potential misuse against any US interest. For a mercantile- instinctive President, the sale of weapons to India is also welcome given its commercial impact on the sizeable defense industry of the US. However, given Trump’s patent irascibility, whimsicality and limited perspective of the Indian concerns, Prime Minister Modi will be tested in termsof navigating and retaining India’s historical ties with allies like Russia and Iran.
India has its own strategic stakes in the Chabahar port in Iran, besides energy, societal and regional concerns that could be at risk with Trump’s unilateral views on Iran. Even the multiple flip-flops in the US-Pak equation that veered from open hostility to that of an engaged ally (to the detriment of India’s interest) is a matter of concern in Delhi as the sudden US stance to have peace talks with the Afghan Taliban militates against India’s own perceptions about the resultant fallout.
Personally, Trump is not given to any emotional, moral or even historical consideration with ‘allies’, his patent fickleness in fully comprehending India’s sensitivities and situation will remain a matter of concern. In societal and poilitical terms, both the United States and India are in a state of unprecedented polarisation. Yet, the style of governance style, instincts and fundamentals of both leaders are individually aligned and proximate.
This makes the situation both an opportunity and a matter of concern. The Indo-US dynamics are predicated on fundamentals that run deeper than a leader’s equation with the other. The the shenanigans that are inevitable in the forthcoming visit must not belie the reality of America’s contribution in creating the situation in the Af-Pak region in the 1980s or more specifically, the menacing sailing of the US 7th fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo- Pak war. With that realistic perspective, Kem Chho Donald a la Howdy Modi, beckons again.
(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)