US President Donald Trump has a large number of supporters as well as critics in India. Those sympathetic to Trump believe that he has been a victim of left liberal propaganda and Washington insiders who are not comfortable with someone who is outside the Beltway and wants to challenge the status quo. Some draw parallels between his predicament and that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — especially with regard to both leaders’ strained relations with the media. The latter however was an outsider to New Delhi but not the political system per se.
In addition to this, there are those who believe that Trump, given the support he received from groups like the Republican Hindu Coalition for Trump — which he acknowledged after the electoral verdict — would be well disposed towards India. Those who support Trump also believe that unlike his predecessors he will not treat Pakistan with kid gloves, given his tough stand on terrorism. It would be pertinent to point out that in February 2017, the US sponsored a resolution to designate the Pakistan-based militant group chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations (UN). The move was of course vetoed by Beijing, as was done last year.
Finally, those favorably disposed towards Trump also believe that the US President will be firm in his dealings with China. The US President had spoken to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and had also spoken about the possibility of the US challenging the One China Policy. The US President was quick to retreat from this position, realizing that this position was unsustainable.
Those who are skeptical about the Trump Presidency point to the anti-immigrant stance and the views of Steve Bannon. Recent hate crimes against members of the Indian community and the H1-B bill have only sent the message that these fears are not unwarranted.
The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2017 was introduced by Congressmen Bill Pascrell, Jr., Dave Brat, Ro Khanna, and Paul Gosar. The key provisions of the bill which will specifically impact India are:
(1) Employers will be required to give preference to American workers before bringing in foreign workers. The bill also prohibits employers from replacing American workers with H-1B and L-1 workers, or giving preference to H-1B visa holders when they are filling vacant positions.
(2) The bill proposes to prohibit companies from hiring H-1B employees if they employ over 50 people and over half of their employees are H-1B and L-1 visa holders.
If one were to judge Trump’s moves so far, he has been pragmatic in his dealings with China and Japan, and there is no reason to believe that he will not adopt a similar attitude towards India. Yet, it would be extremely tough for Trump to totally renege on claims he had made during the election campaign.
How Should India React?
India needs to act fast and come up with innovative methods to deal with the US President. Other Asian countries have already made commitments, with some business leaders like Alibaba CEO Jack Ma already having met with the US President.
Jack Ma met with Trump in January 2017. After the meeting, he stated: “We specifically talked about … supporting 1 million small businesses, especially in the Midwest of America. Small businesses on the platform selling products — agriculture products and America services — to China and Asia, because we’re pretty big in Asia.” There are questions as to whether Ma will be able to raise such a large number of jobs.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his meeting with the US President discussed the possibility of increased Japanese investment in the US. For this purpose, he met with business leaders before he left for his US trip in February 2017. The Japanese PM took detailed briefings with regard to the investments which these companies intended to make in the US. For example, Abe met with Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s Chief Executive. Toyota has come in for criticism from the US President for setting up a plant in Mexico. In January 2017, however, it pledged to invest USD 10 billion in the US over the next five years. This included proposals to add up to 400 jobs at the company’s plant in Princeton, Indiana.
Korean and Taiwanese investors too have pledged investments in the US.
So far, the only Indian businessmen who have met the US President are his partners in India, Atul Chordia, Kalpesh Chordia (the founder of Panchshil Reality) and Kalpesh Mehta (the founder and Managing Director of Tribeca).
Indian PM Narenda Modi understands the relevance of trade and commerce in foreign policy, and has often referred to his Gujarati origins. He has also been accompanied by businessmen during his overseas visits. It is likely that during his visit to the US, the Indian PM will be accompanied by top business leaders. It would make sense of course to send a group of businessmen from various industries including the IT and pharmaceutical sectors, so that there can be some purposeful negotiations.
Engagement Beyond the National Capitals
Trump is an outsider to Washington DC, and does not depend upon the DC bureaucracy. PM Modi too is keen to break the monopoly of the national capital over foreign policy. It is time for both countries to give a fillip to state to state engagement. Only recently, the Indian Ambassador to the US, Navtej Sarna, hosted a group of 27 US governors. One of them was Terry Branstad, the Governor of Iowa who is heading to China. Branstad has known President Xi Jinping ever since 1985 when Xi visited Iowa. Branstad had just become Governor of the state when Iowa entered into a sister province partnership with Hebei. Branstad and Xi met again in 2011, when the former visited China and Xi was Vice President. During Xi’s visit to Iowa in 2012, both leaders met yet again.
Branstad’s case reiterates the significant role of state-province engagement in China-US ties, and also is an example of how Trump is likely to use such ties to benefit the bilateral relationship. Indian states too should seek to reach out to a larger number of US states, especially those with significant diaspora communities and business interests. As in the case of US and China, state level dialogue should be strengthened.
The Need to Strike a Deal
In conclusion, Trump is here to stay, and US domestic politics cannot and should not influence India’s dealings with Trump. While India needs to watch out for its economic and strategic interests, it cannot however turn a blind eye to the safety of Indian immigrants. The only way is striking the “right deal” — something Trump lays a lot of emphasis on and is clearly evident from his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal.
It is important that pragmatism “trumps” emotions and rhetoric, and India “deals” with Trump.