As the United States holds its presidential election tomorrow, it would be a fool’s errand – given the experience of 2016 – to predict its outcome, not the least because of genuine fears that incumbent President Donald Trump may refuse to concede defeat if that eventuates. It is, equally, a matter of truism that the U.S. election comes at a time of exceptional global geopolitical and economic turmoil, thus rendering the outcome of the presidential election in the world’s sole superpower added significance.
American foreign policy over the last four years has been, simultaneously, marked by tough talk in the garb of what has been, variously, described as “principled” or “conservative” realism, but utter chaos – in reality – when it came to consistency and process. In fact, one can’t imagine many American allies and partners being thrilled with what has been four years of relentless assault on the traditional security architecture in Asia and Europe, punctuated by frenetic military and diplomatic activity, as Trump, in his quixotic quest for the best deal, bullied them while adopting a bellicose line on China that hasn’t found many takers in much of Asia.
It is Trump’s record when it comes to India that may indeed go down as a bright spot, relatively speaking of course. Beyond this, Trump’s election also had indirect benefits for New Delhi as it too adopted a much more muscular line both at home and abroad.
While it is undoubtedly true – and has been asserted by the Indian commentariat over and over again this election season – that India-United States ties have bipartisan buy-in in both countries, the Trump administration’s foreign policy ideation has put significant emphasis and accent on the role India could place in the Indo-Pacific, beginning with the 2017 National Security Strategy. India also emerged as a key regional partner in the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released by the Department of Defense.
In 2018, the Trump administration added “Indo” as a suffix to the U.S. military’s Pacific Command – its largest combatant command. India and the United States completed two of the remaining four “foundational” military agreements, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement last month, along with an Industrial Security Annex in 2019 to the U.S.-India General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) concluded in 2002. Along side these agreements, both countries instituted important bilateral as well as plurilateral mechanisms for coordination around security issues. In 2018, the U.S. and India held their first-ever “2+2” defense and foreign ministers’ dialogue. Perhaps more significantly, both countries have enthusiastically embraced the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. Quad security dialogue which got a new lease of life in 2017 as India deepened its ties with U.S. allies in Asia.
This is not to say problems haven’t cropped up in the relationship — which in any case would have been a miracle given Trump’s predilections. Trade is one area where Trump has pushed the relationship as far as he could without breaking it. The Trump administration terminated India’s preferential trading status with the U.S. under the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) last year. Oddly enough – especially given that one does not see too many of them around in the Indian streets – at one point, Trump became fixated by Indian customs duty on imported Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Visas have remained a sticking point, too, as have the issue of India’s commercial relationships with Russia and Iran. But it is important to bear in mind that these problems have always lurked in the background of the relationship; the Trump administration has simply brought them to the fore in as harsh a manner as possible.
How has India reacted to the Trump phenomena? Principally, by adopting flattery as an instrument of statecraft, couched in terms of what admirers of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy describe as his personal approach to diplomacy. Knowing Trump’s vanity, the Modi government has given him what he wants: adulation and clamor. It invited Ivanka Trump to co-inaugurate the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in the Indian city of Hyderabad in 2017, an ersatz state visit that seemed to flout every known diplomatic protocol. Three years later, Modi hosted Trump himself in his home state of Gujarat, in February 2020, putting on a show that seemed to have left Trump impressed. Trump gushed that Modi had told him 5 to 7 million people would attend a joint “Namaste Trump” rally in Ahmedabad.
And of course, there was the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston last year where Modi all but endorsed Trump’s re-election — lending him his own signature campaign slogan – which might come to haunt Modi should Democrat Joe Biden win the election. But there were also relatively subtler approaches, for example including India agreeing to buy $3 billion worth of helicopters for its navy and the army in the run-up to Trump’s visit. Trump’s India visit also saw India-U.S. ties elevated to the status of a “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.”
Yet, flattery and symbolism did lend themselves to substance. During both the 2017 Doklam crisis as well as the ongoing Ladakh standoff, involving China, the United States has provided intelligence in its possession to India. Strikingly, India seems to have shed its traditional aversion to publicly involving a third party in its tussles with China, as has been evident through very visible India-U.S. consultations during the Ladakh crisis. Beyond China, the U.S. was also involved in securing the release of Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan’s custody in the aftermath of the Indian airstrike in Balakot February last year.
But arguably the greatest benefit to India from a Trump presidency has been indirect: As Trump took a sledgehammer to established norms at home and abroad, India found space to push its own hard-edged agenda in Kashmir without worrying about American hectoring. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine New Delhi revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in as heavy-handed a way as it did if a Democrat occupied the Oval Office. Even harder to imagine was Trump’s silence during his visit to New Delhi as Hindu-Muslim riots broke out mere kilometers away from where he met with Modi. The riots followed following a controversial new amendment to India’s citizenship law that was passed in December last year. Plainly put, Modi and his ministers shrewdly calculated that Trump would not care – and he certainly, based on his own actions was not in a position to lecture India — as the Bharatiya Janata Party embarked on delivering on its electoral promises and throwing down the gauntlet to Pakistan.
Writing in the National Interest in May 2016 about a possible Trump presidency and India, I had hoped “A retrenched America will also provide a much-needed impetus to New Delhi’s notoriously status-quoist foreign-policy establishment to proactively shape the region through assertive statecraft.” In the final assessment that has indeed taken place, but perhaps in ways less than desirable for many.