Birds of a feather: On Trump-Modi chemistry

When he visits India for the first time later this month, U.S. President Donald Trump can expect thronging crowds in Gujarat and perhaps a substantive discussion on trade policy in New Delhi, but more than anything, it is his growing bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is expected to steal the limelight. Indeed, this chemistry was evident during the four times that they met in 2019. The pinnacle of those encounters for Mr. Modi was undoubtedly the public relations victory that he won when Mr. Trump graced the ‘Howdy Modi!’ event in Houston before some 50,000 Indian-Americans. Now Mr. Modi is returning the favour perhaps, as he has, in Mr. Trump’s words, promised an attendance of five to seven million, from the airport to the new Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel cricket stadium, the world’s largest; here, they will address the “Kem chho Trump!” event before an expected 1.25 lakh people. While there will always be areas of untapped potential in bilateral cooperation, things could hardly be better between the two nations at this time of global turbulence, in trade and security. On the former issue, despite skirmishes surrounding tariffs in specific sectors, such as medical devices, and counter-tariffs following the U.S.’s termination of its Generalised System of Preferences toward India last year, there is hope for at least a limited trade deal — pegged at $10-billion — that could take a measure of stress out of the protracted closed-door negotiations. Prospects look brighter still on defence cooperation. India is reportedly moving toward approving a $2.6-billion deal for 24 Lockheed Martin-built MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. An agreement to buy a $1.867-billion integrated air defence weapons system is also on the cards.

Notwithstanding this slew of positive, if incremental, cooperative advances, it is the deeper fault lines across the two countries’ domestic polities that could, in the longer-term, impact the prospects for smooth cooperation in the bilateral space. For instance, the Indian government’s recent policy shifts regarding special status for Kashmir as well as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have spooked some U.S. Democrats, including Senators and lawmakers in the House of Representatives. Some have explicitly voiced concerns about the impact in terms of India’s commitment to remaining a tolerant, pluralist democracy. In this context, if the November 2020 presidential election puts a Democrat in the White House, it could potentially impact some of India’s plans. Even if Mr. Trump wins a second term, deepening Congressional opposition to India-friendly White House policies could endanger bilateral prospects. In this sense, there are limits to how much India can peg its strategic plans on the personal chemistry between its leader and the U.S. President.

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