[Modi’s conch-shell welcome to a befuddled looking-Trump in Ahmedabad]
Donald J Trump’s 2-day state visit has unfolded, as predicted. It has been a media show crowned with 100,000 people cramming Motera stadium, the sort of media coverage-drawing event that both principals — Indian PM Narendra Modi and the US President crave and revel in. Trump laid it on thick at Motera — bunging in mention of a whole bunch of disparate popular Indian cultural icons — Diwali, Bollywood, “Soochin Tendolkar”, “Sordor” Patel, “Vivekanamandana…”etc., an address, a retired Indian diplomat called “masterful”. (https://epaper.mailtoday.in/2568554/Mail-Today/Mail-Today-February-25-2020#page/18/2) He must have been watching coverage of a more serious event somewhere!
Pakistan-sourced terrorism has been Modi’s premier foreign policy plank during his 6 years in office (based on the time and effort PMO and MEA have expended on this issue). So, he must have been taken aback when Trump, in auto-correct mode, twinned his claim about America and India being frontline states in the fight against terrorism with a reassurance to Pakistan that America had “a good relationship” with it. How Modi can draw comfort from this forked statement is not clear. But what is is that he means to ride Trump’s coattails to the end for all it is worth, even if the ride lasts only another 9 months because it will be the end of the line should the Democratic Party candidate (likely Biden or Sanders) next occupy the White House. And even if it means signing up for a load of armaments with huge price tags but (many of them, such as the National Advanced Surface- to-Air Missile system — a reworking of the air-to-air Sidewinder missile) of immensely doubtful value.
The piling on of an odd assortment air defence systems (Prithvi interceptors, S-400, Akash, NASAMs, Barak-8) in “layered” missile defence will work as well as not having any such defence at all! That’s how ineffective each of the allegedly “anti-missile” system (as different from their anti-aircraft capability) is individually and, in an integrated architecture, collectively. It speaks volumes about the smooth-talking success achieved by foreign arms companies pushed by their governments and, at the same time, the cupidity and gullibility of Indian leaders and the generalist babu-infested Ministry of Defence and MEA who know squat about national security, and even less about actual defence. But that’s another story!! It reveals the passive defensive-minded pathology lacing India’s procurement policy that will yet be the death of India as a self-respecting power.
But what really happened in the Modi-Trump discussions at Hyderabad House this morning? When talking of the “terrorism” issue, which also presumably included an exchange on Pakistan-sourced cross-border terrorism, Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla referred to the “restricted and confidential” nature of the talks for not disclosing details. It is a dead giveaway that, notwithstanding Trump’s press conference where he was more voluble in backing Modi and India, the discussion didn’t go the way Modi and MEA expected, and that Trump would have nothing to do with punitive measures beyond those agreed on at the Financial Assistance Task Force forum and, sotto voce, that Washington would happily extend the June-2020 deadline if Islamabad continued to be helpful in facilitating battlefield peace with the Quetta-based Haqqani Network and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Just wait and see — this is exactly how the situation will pan out mid-year. And despite repeated brush-offs by Delhi, Trump once again set himself up as mediator on Kashmir.
In the meantime, Modi’s ploy of loosening Trump’s views on Pakistan-sourced terrorism and trade, etc. by pacifying Trump with arms purchases amounting to a $9 billion gain for the US defence industry as Shringla announced proudly, and with buys of American energy — oil, shale oil and gas, and urging Indian capitalists to invest “billions and billions of dollars in the US” (Trump’s words) and generating hundreds of thousands of jobs in America, has not diluted Trump’s attitude to India an iota. On trade, for instance, Shringla implied as much in his press conference when he talked of a one-sided transactional scheme being par for the course. This he did by differentiating between the trade “package” dealing with tariffs in current transactions and the “big deal” that Trump had sought to permit mutual concessions on a bilateral agreement basis. But either way, as Trump emphasized in his press conference, the US would always force its advantage. So, how has Modi’s coddling of the US in any way helped India? What has India got or gained?
The trade talks have stalled on a number of friction points. From India’s perspective these are, in the main, the low level of US technology transfer, and the joint R&D projects to develop “critical technologies” that the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative promised, which is still at the talking stage. If anybody in MEA and PMO is waiting for such programs to fructify soon or ever and is listening, you are advised to not hold your breath. It won’t happen.
Trouble is Modi cannot wish away the existing chasm between India’s and US interests. Short of Modi gifting Washington what remains of this country’s foreign policy integrity in order to get a pat on the back and a torrent of flattery from Trump — to wit, his speech at Motera, the differences simply cannot be bridged. In this respect, Shringla struggled to explain how the “comprehensive strategic global partnership” that’s supposed to have been initiated by the Trump-Modi duo is different from the less wordy “global strategic partnership” it apparently replaced. He talked of the former in terms of greater understanding and commitment on a wider array of subjects — none of which is reflected in the outcomes of the Trump trip that the Indian FS described, for reasons unknown, as “extraordinary”. Especially because the trip indicates that while Trump held on to his positions, Modi eroded the country’s bargaining leverage by ceding ground virtually on all fronts except in allowing unhindered, unlimited, exports to India of American dairy products.
But that’s because — and this is not hard to speculate — doing so would imperil the burgeoning milk cooperative industry, exemplified by the success of the Amul-brand of dairy items on home turf. It is one thing for Modi to ask India to be treated as a developing state in America’s Generalized System of [trade] Preferences, from which slate India was yanked in the runup to the presidential trip — so much for Trump’s love for India and his desire to expand and enlarge the relationship! Quite another thing to undermine the dairy business in Gujarat and fatally weaken Modi’s and BJP’s grip on their political base in home province. Yea, all politics is local.
The only slight and manifest convergence was regards halting China’s CPEC-kind of infrastructure projects all round the Indian Ocean basin, the East African littoral, and in Central Asia. Whence the two sides agreed on the need for “transparency” in “connectivity” projects about their financial viability, debt load, etc. Not that this will do much good because the US does not dare take ‘pangas’ with China and Beijing knows it.