As an upstart candidate aiming for the highest office in the United States, Donald Trump promised an election rally of Indians that they “will have a true friend in the White House” and “we are going to be best friends” with India.
In his first year as President, Trump has stuck to the promise, appointing for the first time an Indian-American, Nikki Haley, to the cabinet and giving India a “leadership role” in Washington’s global strategy across a broad geographic swath.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man of humble origins, and Trump, a billionaire and a flamboyant reality TV personality, have struck an unlikely friendship.
During a White House visit in June, their hitherto phone friendship was sealed with hugs. “The relationship between India and the US has never been stronger, never been better,” Trump declared. “I am thrilled to salute you, Prime Minister Modi, and the Indian people for all you are accomplishing together.”
The ties have been growing strong under the previous three administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Trump has moved it to a higher trajectory given its preoccupations with China and Afghanistan.
Global security has emerged as the centrepiece of Trump’s approach to India.
“We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner,” said his national strategy unveiled last month, with a view to making New Delhi a counter-balance to Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region.
And Modi had said in October that India-US ties were growing with a “great deal of speed”.
While Indian-Americans are overwhelmingly Democrat — a Pew Research Center survey said 65 percent support that party — Trump has given members of the community some top administration jobs.
Trump appointed Haley to the high profile US cabinet rank post as UN Permanent Representative in which she is often the face of Trump’s hardline foreign policy.
Ajit Pai became the Chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, a position with a vast portfolio overseeing of the Internet, mobile phones, airwaves, broadcast and communications. He took the administration’s controversial decision to end net neutrality.
Trump appointed Raj Shah as his deputy adviser and principal deputy press secretary. Uttam Dhillon, another deputy adviser, is also his deputy counsel.
Others include Seema Verma, administrator of the health insurance programmes for seniors and the poor; Neomi Rao, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs; Vishal J. Amin, White House’s intellectual property enforcement official, and Neil Chatterjee, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They all shape and implement Trump’s controversial policies.
But there have also been areas of friction with India, with immigration as the most contentious. The Trump administration — and his campaign — have signalled plans to fundamentally change the H-1B visa programme for professionals that overwhelmingly benefits Indians. But so far it hasn’t, although it has tightened the scrutiny of the visas.
It also backed off a threat to make H1-B visa holders in line for Green Cards return home while they wait out the years for their permanent residencies.
He has also announced that he wants to end the immigration of relatives beyond the immediate family, categories that mean a lot to Indians. But his proposed reforms also include a points system to rank applicants on the basis of their qualifications, which could benefit Indians.
On the economic front, Trump’s “America First” and Modi’s “Make in India” are likely to come into conflict as each seek manufacturing, jobs and investments in their own economies, and Trump threatening nations with which the US has a trade deficit.
The five Indian Americans in the Congress opposed Trump on most issues. The first Senator of Indian-American ancestry, Democrat Kamala Harris, has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of Trump. She is pushing the Senator Judiciary Committee enquiry into Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia and has called for his resignation over charges of sexual harassment.
But Trump’s India policy “transcends partisanship” and the party supports his initiatives to strengthen it further, according to Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi.
An important area of convergence for the two countries is the fight against terrorism. “Both our nations have been struck by the evils of terrorism and we are both determined to destroy terrorist organisations and the radical ideology that drives them,” Trump said during Modi’s visit to the White House in June.
After several warnings to Pakistan that it “has much to lose” by supporting terrorists, the Trump administration tightened the screws on Islamabad by suspending security assistance this month.
The administration has added Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which carries out attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, and its leader Mohammad Yusuf Shah to the lists of global terrorist organisations and individuals to choke off financial and other support.
In the South Asia region, where Trump’s main focus is on stabilizing Afghanistan and ending terrorism there, Trump said in his August strategy speech, a “critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India – the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the US”.
He asked India “to help us more with Afghanistan”.
But the truly transformational prospects are in the Indo-Pacific region where the US and its allies see a growing threat from China – and for Washington a challenge to its global status.
In his National Strategy document Trump declared: “We will deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.
“We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.”