Four days after his inauguration, President Trump telephoned Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. According to The Times of India, they discussed cooperation with regard to the economy and national security. India was a priority conversation before telephoning Great Britain or any European country. And Trump characterized India as a “true friend.”
Prospects for U.S.-India continued collaboration are good: The two leaders have much in common. First, each has fundamentally a business mindset. President Trump has amassed great capital in real estate, while Prime Minister Modi relates well to the business sector in view of his own entrepreneurial antecedents — either a tea seller or a canteen contractor, depending upon one’s political affiliation. Trump wishes to bring back jobs to the U.S., while Modi has given increased emphasis to manufacturing with his “Make in India” program and industrial corridors.
Second, each is a man of action. In his first few days in office, Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership signed orders to facilitate the demise of Obamacare and promote the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He has also committed to meet with Prime Minister Theresa May on January 27 as the first interaction in person with a foreign head of state. Trump has just signed orders to eliminate funds for sanctuary cities, facilitate construction of the Mexico border wall, and increase deportations of the undocumented. Further, Trump is expected imminently to block immigration for most refugees and to suspend the issuance of visas to selected countries with affinities for Islamist jihad. The similarity to Prime Minister Modi relates to his reputation for implementation, a skill that is in short supply in India. Previously, as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi created a business-friendly environment, with Gujarat benefiting from investment and improvements to infrastructure, and a more rapid process for licensing and other authorizations.
Third, each has committed to drain a particular swamp. Trump has spoken eloquently about a detached, narcissistic culture in Washington, where elected representatives and other officials have forgotten the idea of “we the people” running the country. While some American factories rust and jobs migrate, he suggests, the panjandrums of the Potomac protect not the electorate but their own perches in perpetuity. Trump has inveighed against bad ethics and undue influence following various scandals of the Obama administration: Benghazi, the IRS, Department of Veterans Affairs, Solyndra, Hillary Clinton’s renegade server, and the opaque delineation between the Department of State and the Clinton Foundation. Modi has vowed a clean government and an anti-corruption stance, and indeed the level of scandals has abated since the mining, telecom, defense, and Olympics scandals of the previous Indian administration — which were instrumental for Modi’s candidacy and election victory.
Finally, each is a nationalist in his own way. Trump’s “America First” message and Modi’s identification with Hindu nationalism project a return to traditional values, a position that has alarmed their opposition who view this as anti-inclusive.
Personal relations and chemistry may be necessary but not sufficient for enhanced relations between the U.S. and India. Nonetheless, both countries are strategically aligned, as I have expressed before in these pages.
India’s presence in the Indian Ocean, with the estimated fifth largest navy in the world, coupled with border deployments by the Indian Army, estimated to be the third largest in the world, increase the cost of Chinese potential aggression, even though China would have the advantage in a conventional conflict. The Logistics Support Agreement, Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement, and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement with India may be aggressively leveraged by the U.S. to project an enhanced American naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and to share encryption platforms and proprietary data.
Further, both the U.S. and India are vulnerable to Islamist jihad — although India’s estimated 180 million Muslims are principally secular. Finally, the potential for trade and direct investment between the U.S. and India merit much development beyond a concentration of multinationals — and there are now better prospects for constructing civilian reactors and providing reactor fuel, as well as continuing joint undertakings for outer space.
The cult of personality has been a recurrent theme in Indian political history. Ashoka, Akbar, Mahatma Gandhi, Subash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi are examples of historical figures revered by many, and evoking strong passion, both positive and negative. America now has a celebrity president who shares a common agenda and mindset with India’s prime minister.
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