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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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BW Businessworld

When Modi Met Trump

The US, faced with a rising China, needs India as much as India, faced with two difficult borders, needs the US

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


In their first face-to-face meeting on Monday, June 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump had plenty to say to each other. India and the US have drifted apart in recent years.

The drift began in former President Barack Obama’s second term. Obama, in his first term, had continued predecessor George W. Bush’s policy to posit India as a geopolitical counter to China.

In his second term, though Obama and Modi met several times, the chemistry was tepid. The India-US strategic partnership became transactional with New Delhi buying US military equipment and encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI).

But the Obama Administration’s decision to draw-down US troops in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban, created and nourished by the Pakistani army, to regroup. The recent terror attacks in Kabul are an outcome of Obama’s failed Af-Pak policy that has affected India’s interests in the region.

Trump’s win in the 2016 US presidential election was initially welcomed by the BJP-led NDA government. Trump had campaigned on an anti-Islamist terror plank and named Pakistan as one of the countries that provided a safe haven for terrorists.

On taking office, Trump changed tack. His protectionist ‘America First’ doctrine targeted India which accounts for the bulk of H-1B visas. A crackdown on onsite software engineers from India who “snatch” jobs from Americans remains one of the contentious points during the Modi-Trump meet.

More worrying has been Trump’s Middle East policy. He picked Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit. He signed deals worth nearly $400 billion for military equipment and infrastructure. The Saudis will spend this money over ten years to buy US weapons and invest in crumbling US infrastructure which Trump is keen to rebuild.

Emboldened by Trump’s support, the Saudis orchestrated a virtual blockade of Qatar, throwing the Gulf region into chaos. The real reason for the punishment of tiny Qatar (which has a population of 2.7 million) is not that it sponsors Islamist terrorism (Saudi Arabia does that on a far bigger scale) but that it is close to Shia Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy.

Instead of focusing on Afghanistan, Trump has thoughtlessly helped roil the Gulf. India’s interest lies in mitigating Pakistan-abetted terrorism in Af-Pak and Jammu & Kashmir.

The third key issue between Modi and Trump is America’s abandonment of the Paris climate change accord. As I wrote last fortnight (‘Trump goes Toxic’, BW 24 June), the US decision will harm the world’s concerted effort to tackle what is a serious ecological problem — one though Trump describes as a hoax.

Modi, however, is a firm advocate of tackling global warming. Few know   that as chief minister of Gujarat, he wrote a book on the subject titled Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response to Challenges of Climate Change, published by Macmillan Publishers India  in 2011.

Well before global warming became a major issue, this is what Modi wrote: “I remember, a few years ago, I used to read a lot of sceptical views on climate change, whether or not it was actually happening. Having been in public life I am aware of  behind-the-scene lobbying by vested interests that normally accompany any such carefully orchestrated campaigns. But even in those days of uncertainty and confusion, I based the formulation of public policy on my conviction of the complementary relationship between man and nature.

“This book, therefore, is only a humble attempt to document initiatives and innovations that we have undertaken and experimented during the last eight years in Gujarat that have directly or indirectly but significantly, contributed and will continue to contribute, to the adaptation and mitigation of Climate Change.”

How can the India-US relationship — described by both Bush and Obama as the “defining partnership of the 21st century” — be put back on track? Modi and Trump are pragmatic, business-minded leaders.

The US, faced with a rising China, needs India as much as India, faced with two difficult borders, needs the US. In an inevitable emergence of a “triangle of power” in the next ten years, India, China and the US will be the world’s three largest economic and military powers.

They will have to find a way to co-exist in an increasingly unstable world with at least four flashpoints: the spread of Islamist terrorism; the Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle-East, North Korea’s nuclear belligerence; and terror-stricken Af-Pak.

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan on June 8-9, Chinese President, Xi Jinping, pointedly refused a bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This was to show Chinese displeasure at the abduction and murder of two Chinese nationals in Balochistan by Islamist terrorists.

The Modi-Xi bilateral at the SCO summit meanwhile, signalled a softening of positions on both sides. While China continues to irresponsibly block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and irrationally object to the Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh, it has realised that India’s economy and military are now too large to ignore.

Beijing is also coming to terms with the reality that its investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could be severely jeopardised by both the insurgency in Balochistan and the growing threat of Islamist terrorism in Pakistan.

All of this means a reordering of the world’s geopolitical pivots. India and the US with their democracies and open markets are natural allies and, along with Europe, form one pivot of power.

China is the second pivot with Pakistan as its commercial colony and Russia as a wild card. Between these two poles lie a swathe of countries and blocs: the Middle East; Japan and East Asia; and the growing economies of Africa and Latin America.

In the US, Trump is being attacked on an hourly basis by a Left-leaning media which backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. It wants to delegitimise Trump and impeach him.

Trump may have been born a billionaire but as a real estate developer is as much an outsider among the Washington-New York elite as Modi is among Lutyens’ Delhi.

The two men need to find common ground on fighting Islamist terrorism, re-enforcing the India-US strategic partnership, and putting both America and India first.