The weekend’s Howdy Modi rally in the US is significant not only because it represents Modi’s ongoing attempts to woo the Indian diaspora, from whom a significant amount of his support comes, but also his reliance on personal diplomacy. This may have won favour with Trump but with other leaders, Modi has had more mixed success.
Like most capitals around the world, New Delhi received the news that Donald J. Trump had been elected as the President of the United States with concern and disbelief. The news unsettled Narendra Modi’s government. Trump’s economic nationalism and apparent nativism worried many. India, after all, runs a substantial trade surplus with the US – in 2017, it amounted to $23 billion. A large number of its citizens reside in the US on so-called H1-B temporary worker visas, which on the campaign trail Trump threatened to cut. The President-elect’s unpredictable behaviour and transactional approach also bothered New Delhi, which had put great effort into renewing defence and security ties with Washington after Modi was elected in May 2014. It assessed, in the words of Ram Madhav, a General Secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that Trump’s approach was likely to be ‘violently different’ to his predecessor’s.
Modi did not meet Trump in person until five months into his term in office. This gave the Indian government some time to assess the President’s character, style, and policies. It is apparent that they were not reassured by what they saw. When Modi travelled to Washington for his first bilateral with Trump in late June 2017, the media were briefed that the interaction might be ‘challenging’.
In the event, however, the meeting went reasonably well. Modi succeeded in inflicting one of his trademark hugs on Trump, and their joint press conference was cordial. The President pledged to be ‘true friend’ to India. The Prime Minister, for his part, bore gifts: an order from Air India for 100 new planes and an invitation for Ivanka Trump to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Bangalore later in the year.
Since then Modi has sustained an approach towards Trump that aims to flatter him and satisfy his desire for deals to announce. His recent invitation to the President to address the Howdy, Modi! rally in Houston, Texas, attended by a reported 50,000 members of the Indian diaspora, follows that pattern closely. Modi praised Trump highly in opening remarks, and adapting a phrase from his own campaigns, declared Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar (“This time, Trump’s government”) – calling, in effect, for the President to be re-elected in 2020.
In the background, the bureaucracies in both capitals have worked hard to maintain and strengthen their strategic partnership. Since the mid-2000s, the US and India have been building closer defence and security ties, partly to aid India’s emergence as a regional provider of public goods, but also to complicate Beijing’s calculations in the wider Indo-Pacific. Under the Obama administration, these ties got closer, with India declared a ‘major defence partner’ of the US, allowing it access to military technology denied to most states. Trump’s election might have thrown this burgeoning relationship into question, but thanks in large part to the work done by both countries diplomats and defence ministries, the partnership has progressed, with logistics and communications agreements signed since the President came to power.
Overall, indeed, the management of the relationship with Washington, even under Trump, has been one of the more successful aspects of the Modi government’s conduct of international relations. A combination of deep-seated commitment within both governments combined with the Prime Minister’s personal diplomacy has clearly made the difference.
Elsewhere, however, Modi’s approach has paid fewer dividends. His early flattery of China’s Xi Jinping, which included an elaborate visit to the Prime Minister’s home state in Gujarat in mid-September 2014 did not lead to significant improvements in Sino-Indian relations. An anticipated inflow of investment from China has not come; the People’s Liberation Army still intrudes, periodically, across the disputed border into territory India claims as it own. In mid-2017, the two countries militaries became involved in a standoff in Bhutan that might have led to war, if the threats issued in Chinese state media can be believed. Although the two leaders came to a modus vivendi in an informal summit at Wuhan in May 2018, it is clear that Modi’s personal diplomacy has not produced the results intended.
A similar story can be told of India’s relations with Pakistan. Modi tried several times to engage that country’s previous Prime Minister, Nawaj Sharif, with an invitation to the Indian leader’s swearing in ceremony and an impromptu visit to the Pakistani politician’s home. Neither shifted Islamabad’s intransigent approach towards New Delhi, nor persuaded elements of the Pakistani state to cease their backing of terrorist organisations. Relations between the two remain poor, as the Balakot incident in February 2019 amply demonstrated.
The Modi government’s biggest challenge in its second term in office will be getting India’s economy back on track. But in foreign policy, it will continue to operate in a difficult environment, especially concerning China and Pakistan. Managing ties with a capricious Trump will continue to be key to coping, but persuading it to go further in cooperating with India in areas like counter-terrorism, as Modi hinted in Houston that he would like the US to do, will not be easy. And as with the broader strategic partnership, it will depend as much (if not more) on bureaucratic energy as personal diplomacy.
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