Making a deal with Trump

Published in the ‘Open’ Magazine, issue dated 6 February, 2017. A slightly different version in the net edition at

. The print version below:


India First and the new America

Now that the over-hyped, over the top, self-congratulatory tone of the change of government celebrations in Washington (carried by the Indian electronic media in the fawning manner the fledging Indian press reported the 1897 festivities commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign) have ended, the United States and the world enter gingerly upon the ‘America First’ era promised by President Donald J. Trump. There’s much apprehension everywhere, reflected in the iconic ‘Doomsday clock’ published by the venerable Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which, until now showed three minutes to Midnight (denoting nuclear apocalypse), being advanced half a minute or so.

But the populist Trump, it must be noted, is in his outlook, demeanor, and in his outlier’s political experience and trailblazing journey to the centre of power not unlike the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. Trump means to remake the country and the Republican Party in his own image much as Modi has done the Bharatiya Janata Party and (at least the top part of) the Indian government. Trump trusts his own views, and hopes to translate them into corrective programmes starting with deregulating the economy, just as Modi, relying on his reading of the situation and his own counsel, has shaped India’s policies and taken measures to generate jobs, encourage local industry, and loosen credit flows. But Modi, more risk-averse in reducing the government’s footprint, is also more humble than Trump. When asked whom he consulted on foreign policy matters, Trump said he found he was “speaking with myself,  number one, because I have a very good brain.” It signaled disdain for domain experts and advisory agencies, which attitude is quintessentially Modi-like.  Elsewhere, even though similar sounding, there are real differences between Trump’s ‘America First’ and Modi’s ‘India First’ principles, which will cause a rift between the two countries.

‘America First’, as Trump envisions it, is a decisive turning inward by a country fatigued playing globocop, dispirited by the  unending drain of national wealth in “peace making” and “democracy building” missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and victimized (as Trump sees it) by a globalised economy in which America is taken to the cleaners, even as China, ruthlessly manipulating its currency and exploiting the current multilateral trade and investment regimes to US’ detriment, grows wealthier and militarily assertive in Asia. Trump has promised hard-knuckled bargaining on bilateral basis for more equitable trade agreements, by-passing the existing multilateral forums altogether.

Already Trump has taken the axe to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Asia-Pacific trade channels will be next. China is the target, but India will suffer collateral damage in its limited areas of comparative advantage — Information-Technology and pharma sectors as Indian companies apprehend. With China ready to fill the global economic space vacated by the US, a stagnating India, dragged down by a moribund government apparatus, will get boxed even more into a corner. Further, following his dismissal of the United Nations as a “good time club”, Trump has cancelled the $500 million US contribution to it by President Barack Obama. The Modi government thus finds itself in a disrupted milieu, and on the outs with the incoming Trump Administration, missing two of its foreign policy crutches – an amenable America and multilaterfal diplomacy.

The “India First” concept was first coined by me and fleshed out in the monthly periodical ‘Seminar’ in 2002 (see By a process of osmotic transmission, it reached Narendra Modi in the late 2000s, who gave it a spin and made it his own ideological calling card. As originally conceived and explained to certain senior BJP leaders, ‘India First’ was a reaction to the wrong-headed foreign and military policies in the latter parts of the Narasimha Rao’s and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regimes that, in my view, promoted a vine-like clinging to the United States and the West for solutions to the country’s economic and security problems, rather than the country banking on itself, effectively mobilizing its own resources, selectively building up India’s strategic hard power, and more nimbly managing the international correlation of forces.

The tendency to outsource security became full blown during Manmohan Singh’s tenure, symbolized by the so-called “nuclear civilian cooperation” deal with the United States that, as intended by Washington, has prevented further nuclear testing and frozen Indian nuclear weapons at the low end of the technology curve and, worse, drawn the country into the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty net. ‘India First’ has mutated, in the Modi years into a still greater leaning on the US; the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement turning over Indian naval and air bases for contingent US military use and pre-positioning of stores, and his ‘Make in India’ programme providing foreign suppliers the cover to transfer old assembly lines to produce antiquated military hardware, such as the F-16 fighter aircraft.

It is in this larger context that one has to weigh the possible outcomes of Trump’s policies. Indian reactions have been predictable. Keying on the middle class aspirations, the media has focused on the abolition of the H1B visa track to the coveted ‘green card’ as the big downside of the Trump presidency when, in fact, starting with Obama’s ‘in-shoring” policy the Indian IT majors, had begun hiring Americans in large numbers and limiting their H1B exposure. Another reaction – that of BJP spokesmen, is to mistakenly conflate Trump’s threat to destroy “Islamic terror” and the Afghan Taliban with the US help in eliminating the various troublesome Lashkars active in Pakistan. In a similar vein, to expect that Trump’s harsh words about China will mean military pressure on Beijing, which could benefit India, is to discount the leverage its economic interlinks with and cross-holdings in America, provide China. Should the situation get hot, Trump will expect US’ Asian allies and partners – as he does European states fearful of an aggressive Russia — to protect their interests the best they can. Meanwhile, Trump’s closest European friend other than Nigel Farage of Brexit fame is President Vladimir Putin to cement relations with whom, Trump will lift the US sanctions imposed on Russia.

To complicate matters, New Delhi has, in its eagerness to “diversify” its military supply sources, distanced itself from Russia at the worst possible time, particularly as a helpful Kremlin would have been invaluable in offsetting China’s military strength. Indeed, Trump would more easily be persuaded about an informal concert of India, Russia, and the US to deter and contain China, rather than get the US involved in shoring up America’s treaty allies and possibly into a direct fight with China.

Yet another response by the Indian media, habituated to portraying every small achievement by NRIs as earth-shaking event, is to laud Trump for appointing Indian-origin Americans to high positions (Nikki Haley as US Ambassador to a diminished UN, Ajit Pai as head of the Federal Communications Commission, etc.) and to read a deep store of US goodwill for India in these appointments.

The many real downside aspects are thus missed. Trump sees himself as an incomparable negotiator, his hard line deal-making method stressing all take and no give. In practice, this will result in the bullying of friendly states, including India. Were New Delhi, for instance, to suggest a tradeoff between India’s buys of high-value US armaments and Washington’s easing off on the H1B issue, say, or conserving some other Indian interest, the access to the lucrative US market will be alluded to by way of sealing a one-way deal. More worrisome still, in between professing his love for “Hindus” and labeling everything Pakistani “fantastic”, Trump has evinced an interest in brokering a Kashmir deal. Islamabad has jumped at the chance to drag the US into the melee; New Delhi will demur. Faced with a receptive Pakistan, a resisting India, and the prospective loss of face (and possibly the Nobel Peace Prize to match his predecessor Obama’s), a vindictive Trump, of which there’s ample evidence,  may go ballistic, his ire erupting in hurtful diplomatic actions. What’s to stop him, say, exhuming the plebiscite option to resolve the Kashmir dispute per UN Security Council Resolution 47?

If the above is viewed as alarmist speculation consider that the person regarded as most able to inject sanity into the Trump Cabinet, is called “Mad Dog”, as in General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the US Defence Secretary. As a former head of the US Central Command, Mattis has dealt extensively with the Pakistan army and appreciates its utility in advancing US interests in a region where America finds itself bogged down. To ensure a smooth relationship with Islamabad, he would happily revert to the policy of alerting General Headquarters, Rawalpindi (GHQR) about Indian plans for “surgical strikes” or other operations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, as happened in the past when India, jointly with Israel, had planned in 1982 to bomb the nuclear complex in Kahuta and a solo IAF mission two years later, both aiming for preemptive strikes before the Pakistani nuclear programme had reached the weapons threshold.

And finally, a warning for Modi: As a self-confessed “germaphobe” Trump will not tolerate the Prime Minister’s hugs and, in meetings, will keep Modi at arm’s length, perhaps, symbolically describing the arc of the evolving US attitude towards India.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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13 Responses to Making a deal with Trump

  1. Edelbert Badwar says:

    “banking on itself, effectively mobilizing its own resources, selectively building up India’s strategic hard power, and more nimbly managing the international correlation of forces.”
    I agree totally on this.Indians after 70 years of independence still long to sail to the white man’s land as evidenced by the clamour for H-1B visas etc.China has come a long way on the basis of its own efforts.

  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Re. “Elsewhere, even though similar sounding, there are real differences between Trump’s ‘America First’ and Modi’s ‘India First’ principles, which will cause a rift between the two countries.”

    Could you elaborate. As I see it, Modi’s ‘India First’ is absolutely and irrevocably, the same thing that Trump’s ‘America First’ is.

    Trump has said that he wants the world to pay him protection money – Modi has already been running after Potus.

    Trump has said that he wants US economy to get better. Indian establishment has already put its own house on fire.

    Modi’s ‘India First’ is anticipatory ‘America First’ and that is it.

    Actually as I see it you should not have used a concept – India First – except by first ring fencing it against encroachment by the establishment. These politico-Babu-Expat Agency network can and will try to turn all things Indian and Hindu to something that is detrimental to Indians and Hindus and exceedingly useful for foreigners. Though I would not go to the extent of the above poster by branding everybody seeking H1B as a potential slave.

    The reason why China is ahead of us is because they had a China First policy without any byeline to advertise it. India lags because the byeline after being hijacked, was deliberately contorted, into something it can never ever be. This dual face policy making apparatus keeps us held back to serve its masters.

    • Agree. That’s why I tried, albeit fleetingly, to mention the essentials of my “India First” formulation, and to contrast that with how Modi has interpreted and implemented it.

  3. satyaki says:

    Dissapointing to read on Saurav Jha’s TL that the K-4 test was postponed. Technical reasons or political reasons ?

  4. Mr Karnad,

    This query only remotely related to your latest post. Which way is Trump team inclined on the nuclear deal with India? Will they agressivly sell their reactors, let the deal die or remain status quo? We know they might put Iran deal at notice.

    Toshiba has announced exit from reactor construction biz. Might affect Westinghouse plan in India too.

    UK seems to be moving towards smaller power reactors. Are GOI decision makers aware or will the lobbyists manage to sell risky and expensive large reactors?

    • Primeargument@ — My reading is Trump will push sales of any and everything, including reactors. But he will be less a stickler for the no-testing condition of the N-deal with India, if Delhi sells it as a China=countering necessity, which it is. Alas, Modi and MEA are too timid to test these waters. It should be interesting to see how the Westinghouse AP 1000 reactor push progresses with Toshiba out of the game. As re: very large 1000MW reactors, isn’t it ironic the Indian AEC allowed itself to be persuaded about higher yield reactors when its specialty was the 220MW PHWR, and should have designed reactors of smaller capacity rather than go big.

  5. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    I would say it would have been ok to go for 1000 MW reactors with the proviso that there was enough funding and domestic resource commitment for an indigenous line of reactors. Instead the most glamourous thing in town is to import reactors, with even the PMs running after foreign heads of govts. to have these imported. And Indian efforts are forever on drip medicine.

    In any case the reactors are only sensible for niche applications. For bulk power other things will get developed. So there is better sense in going in for smaller reactors than for big. Instead the GoI is betting on high power costs to make this inherently expensive option bundled off in the power generation mix.

    Though I would also believe that Trump will sell his overhyped overly expensive reactors given that the liabilities clauses have been diluted for them. If after all this he still doesn’t sell the I would say the sales agents in our system have failed alongwith the parts of government relying on these fixers. That would be a great laddoo-vitran occassion for me.

  6. andy says:

    Re:”To complicate matters, New Delhi has, in its eagerness to “diversify” its military supply sources, distanced itself from Russia at the worst possible time, particularly as a helpful Kremlin would have been invaluable in offsetting China’s military strength.”

    This is the crux of the problem India faces.The India tilt towards the US is obvious as also the Russian tilt towards China.What is also obvious is that with around 70%of the Indian military equipment being of Russian origin any military campaign by India will flounder without a cooperative Russia.Also the India and Russia pincer from the south and north has come to naught due to the so called diversification spree of the Indian military.This is what happens when there is lack of strategic foresight ,as is amply evident.With Russian cooperation the dragon could have been tamed, since both India and Russia share long borders with China,unlike the US which is from another continent.

    Sadly nations, just like humans ,have to suffer the consequences of the choices made.

  7. Maximus says:

    Interesting comparison between Modi and Trump. I do see also some parallels to Hitler. Democratically elected, Von Papen and Hindenburg thought they would control “this low cast soldier” from Austria, named Adolph.He propagated big ticket investments into infrastructure , Germany first, more Lebensraum, scapegoating foreign blood (Jews).The establishment didn’t take his blabber seriously ” he will soften, once in government etc.” Well, in a blitzkrieg matter of time [5 months] he launched a coup from above: from having only 2 ministers of his own party ( interior + police) he became the supreme leader with millions of deaths on his conscience. Trump has already launched with great fanfare an unsuccessful attack in Jemen. In his own party only maverick McCain dares to speak tacheles. Is anyone daring in the Bjp to contradict supreme orders? Hail supreme leaders galore.Orwell chuckles, dawning of billionaire populists and nationalists everywhere.

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      TIFWIW but invoking Hitler tends to do injustice to an understanding of the workings of both Hitler and whoever he is compared against.

      Merely having a bunch of boisterous yes men and wrongly identifying the good of the country in the good of the self, are not the only criteria to end up becoming a Hitler. Nearly all leaders everywhere are guilty of these crimes.

      To truly end up as hitler a leader will have to up the ante against some set of people the country they supposedly govern. This mass cull has to be achieved by motivating the followers to actually take such a program through its various stages. This is about setting one part of a country against the other. A leader must have the sick mind to see such a divide and rule as a solution.

      In Modi we have probably the first leader in the modern net connected social media led world, who tried to gather voter goodwill based on self-predictions regarding his own safety. Trump tends to feel hurt with something as silly as media reporting. Fact that his face is very mobile helps him in his cause of showing displeasure. These leaders cannot kill a fly with a bazooka. They worry too much about pleasure and displeasure. They can instead be compared to a successful film actor, better. Somebody who is interested self-promotion to an unreasonable extent. Both Modi and Trump, were incredibly lucky to have had weak oppositions to contend with (Mother-Son duo in India and Hillary in USA). Their followers much the same way have no brains just like a film actor’s fan with a life and lifestyle revolving around their favourite protagonist. None of these fans have the stomach to see a good riot around their city. Most of them bring in weak logic to justify their choices. The cynicism of their followers is unlikely to go beyond the usual crimes of omission, they feel smart indulging in. Mostly these leaders are pretenders and their policies and implementations, show their character.

      Just a case in point – when hitler took the surrender of france he made sure that the surrender was taken in the same railway bogie where the germans were made to surrender in WW-1. He saw in his personal choices and spite, the redemption of a nation. There really was no way to appease hitler while modi felt best when he was feted by 50 senators standing in line. I cannot see how hitler and modi could ever exchange places in such cases which show an essentially character of a person. Modi wants to be loved even if only for his dress sense – loved especially by people very close to him or too far from him – settings where control mechanisms exist. Hitler had no such pretensions to being loved – he needed to command even if for no good reason – whoever was within his reach. Modi and trump have never been hurt physically unlike hitler. Nor have they ever identified themselves to a completely lost and bankrupt nation, a personal stand that is part of ones character. While hitler could never have been vilified against (regarding rioting/killings) unlike Modi. Both would never understand a life lived like the other.

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