Modi and Trump: Budding Friendship or Diplomacy?

President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would seem to be kindred spirits. But despite a lot of sweet talk as Modi arrived in Washington for the White House meeting last week, the question remains whether his dalliance with Trump will just reduce to that diplomatic meet or will blossom into a full-on friendship.

Trump and Modi are alike in many ways. They both came to power on populist, nationalist waves with promises to confront  terrorism and stand up to China. Both rule large democracies with a clear interest in increasing their security and economic, diplomatic cooperation. Their social media followings currently rank first and second, respectively, among world leaders.

The first formal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump must be seen as a “work in progress” by and large. Ahead of their meeting, President Trump welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “true friend.” Modi thanked Trump for the “warm personal welcome” via Twitter. But beyond protocol and diplomatic graces, Modi might not be able to convey any exaggerated affection on behalf of Indians which makes me a tad bit happy.

It was an ice-breaker kind of meeting between the current leaders of the two biggest democracies and one should not try to look for concrete deliverables as none can be expected at such an early stage of Trump’s presidency.

The most tangible consequence of PM Modi’s maiden summit with the United States president, Donald Trump, has been the blacklisting of the Hizbul Mujahideen leader, Syed Salahuddin, and an agreement both countries should go after terrorist safe havens. At a time when the Indian administration has been reeling under tremendous stress to bring back normalcy in Kashmir, the designation of the chief of a militant group most active in the Valley is a resounding endorsement against Pakistan-backed terror, cross-border terrorism which was spelt out in detail in the joint statement.

The main Indian accomplishment from the visit was to reassure itself that the India-US strategic partnership developed over the past two decades will survive an unpredictable White House resident. For the most part, that has been accomplished. The two governments easily found common ground on terrorism. But they also broadly agreed that they faced a common Chinese challenge on the maritime front.

There were also some welcome signs of continuity, including the United States’ recognition of India as a Major Defense Partner, support for India’s membership to export control regimes and the U.N. Security Council, and commonality of views on Afghanistan’s stability and on cyberspace. India should be more than satisfied with these broad stated contours for cooperation, which should put to rest some concerns about the Trump administration’s orientation. Of course, there was also plenty of symbolism: the bear hugs, the warm rhetoric, and the invitation extended to Ivanka Trump for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India.

President Trump was harsh on India regarding Paris climate agreement, but he was speaking to the domestic audience and moving to achieve his campaign promises. A novice in politics, President Trump might be far from being politically correct, but the businessman in him has ensured that the astute politician Prime Minister Modi convince Trump of the transactional benefits in doing business with India. And the fact that the two leaders hit it off only adds to getting things done. It was also interesting that the joint-statements didn’t mention anything about the differences over the Paris Climate agreement or the H-1B visa programme.

Beyond security, the biggest focus for President Donald Trump is the economy and all aspects of strategic partnership will be viewed by the Trump administration through the transactional prism.

What does India have to offer?

Well, Prime Minister Modi made sure that President Trump sees intent and political will in the boosting of both the markets. During the course of the conversation Modi apprised the Trump administration of the leading economic reforms that are underway in India beginning with the passing of the GST bill.

Also, while the issue of H-1B visa restrictions did not specifically come up, albeit deliberately from the Indian side during the bilateral talks, the point was put across of how Indian professionals in US add and contribute way more to the US economy and enable job creation. Even the defence side has a lot of deals coming America’s way which would lead to job creation and upward mobility for the markets.

Trump, reflecting his curious mercantilist view on economics, expressed displeasure over India’s small trade surplus with the US. He was on firmer ground when it came to criticising India’s high barriers to manufactured goods. However, the two governments agreed to handle these and other trade and investment problems through dialogue rather than confrontation. Nonetheless, while the Trump administration will maintain continuity on the strategic side, India should expect little leeway on trade and immigration issues. Mr Modi may see a faint echo of his own government’s actions on the home front in this.

In all, it seemed like both sides managed to reach a common meeting ground for the countries to set the ball rolling on economic and on strategic cooperation.Indians will do well to keep in mind this quote of Mark Twain : “The principle of give and take is the principle of diplomacy – give one and take ten.”

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