NEW YORK – Will he? That’s the question the Narendra Modi government is obsessing with right now, after sending an invite to President Donald Trump in April of this year, to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade, in 2019.
There has been no confirmation as yet from the US side, according to a report in The Times of India, which said the Trump Administration is “favorably considering” the invite.
If Trump does oblige – condescendingly or otherwise, given the recent cascade of diplomatic stand-off with India on critical issues, from trade tariffs to arms procurement from Russia, immigration to importing oil from Iran – a flurry of vexatious questions will follow next for India – as to how the US President will behave on his trip.
The uneasy questions for Modi and the Indian government, even as they wait for an affirmation of the visit, will surely revolve around Trump’s mercurial and disruptive disposition on foreign trips.
This week, Trump’s stunning, askew foreign policy stance was on shockingly high gear. He shamed the 29-nation coalition of NATO in Brussels with threats, before finally assuring them that America will not abandon them, at least for now, as long as they did his bidding: raise defence spending to 4% of a country’s GDP.
Trump then embarked on a trip to America’s closest ally, Britain, where he lost little time in deeply embarrassing Prime Minister Theresa May, questioning and poking holes in her stance on Brexit, in an interview released even as he was being wined and dined by his hosts. Trump did the unthinkable in his interview to the Sun: thrust Boris Johnson as May’s potential successor, touting him as a better leader than her.
Imagine Trump coming to India and lambasting Modi in public, castigating him for foreign policy decisions and trade imbalance with the US, projecting Sushma Swaraj as being better Prime Minister material than him.
Or worse, pointing out favorably liberalization policies of the UPA government, when Manmohan Singh was at the helm. That scenario would surely be giving nightmares to the Modi government, with India’s general elections to be held next year.
When President Barack Obama came over for the 2015 Republic Day parade, it was seen as a coup for Modi, in his first year in office. With Trump, however, it could prove to be political hara-kiri, one to regret. There are plenty of ominous reasons for Modi to feel in distress and in discomfort over the invite to Trump. Accepted or not, it could turn out to be unpredictable, volatile. Provide valuable fodder to be exploited by the opposition.
First of all, all things said and done, the invite is now around three months old. Why is it taking so long for the US to say yes, or no? What is evident, though, is that since the invitation was sent out, the US has been downright unfriendly and even rude, in diplomatic parlance, on several issues, towards India.
The standout, glaring one has been the embarrassing cancelation of scheduled visits to the US in July by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled the ‘2+2’ dialogue in June. The Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, later released a statement saying the meetings have been rescheduled. No date, however, is yet to be given.
One cannot recall when such a diplomatic faux pas had last taken place between India and the US, which have been slowly coming closer in bilateral and business ties, from the onset of the George W. Bush presidency.
Trump has not sounded off his disdain for India in public, as much as he has for some other countries, like China, but several actions taken by the Trump Administration speak volumes of their lackadaisical attitude.
Both India and the US have hauled up each other to the WTO on numerous occasions, from solar energy to immigration issues. With Trump threatening to exit the trade organization, like he did with the Paris climate agreement, the path for settling disputes may get narrower.
At home, the one issue Trump has found it hardest to knock down in his favor has been legal immigration, because he needs Congress to act on it, for comprehensive reforms. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions see India as the prime ‘villain’ in their quest to clamp down on legal immigration, and promote the ‘America First’ doctrine.
Several measures have been introduced in the recent few months – since the invite to Trump has been sent out – which has made it harder to get an H-1B visa, or to get employment after the end of a F-1 student visa. Indian nationals have been the worst affected.
Unlike in the past, when the number one subject for Indian politicians after a visit to the US was to talk about discussions on the immigration issue, as to how they broached the subject and underscored jobs being created here by Indian companies, the Indian government has now resigned itself to the fact that with Trump, pleas and pleadings will tantamount to nothing. He does as he will. All that talk has dissipated.
The question also to be asked, apart from the gracious and correct thing done by Modi in inviting Trump, after he himself was hosted in the White House, is, what will India really gain from inviting Trump over in 2019?
Trump wants more business with India for sure, to benefit the US. Also, he has dangled the carrot of sanctions against Pakistan as leverage with India, to great effect.
Perhaps, the best thing to do for India would have been to invite Trump in 2020, if Modi does indeed go on to win the 2019 elections, assume second term in office. That way, Modi would have been in strong position to dodge loaded comments, dictate terms more comfortably with a President who would be having qualms of his own by then, on the looming Presidential elections.
Also, by early 2020, the US might be facing economic repercussions of its own from the trade tariffs in place, which may escalate later this year.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)