Audiences between the leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies have not typically lacked for fanfare. Past meetings of Indian and American leaders have been colorful, even affectionate affirmations of the two nations’ “strategic partnership.” But barely any pomp is expected when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets President Trump face-to-face for the first time Monday.
The White House has yet to articulate a South Asia policy – let alone name an ambassador to India – and matters relating to India-U.S. relations seldom cross the president’s desk. Since becoming president, Pres. Trump has used speeches on job creation and the Paris climate accords to cast India as an unscrupulous negotiator and a threat to American workers.
So it might seem a strange time for Trump to receive Modi, yet here he is, with closed-door meetings and a private working dinner on the schedule. Instead of playing up the occasion, Washington and New Delhi are billing the talks as “no-frills,” geared toward hard-nosed business discussions. Modi’s brief and subdued plans indicate the care both sides are taking to make sure a relationship on the rocks doesn’t slip any further.
Expectations for the meeting are so low that many India-watchers in Washington say Modi’s best-case scenario might be simply reminding Trump that their countries share numerous interests, especially in combating so-called radical Islamic terror. Or, better still, the two might connect on a personal level, possibly preventing further public outbursts of derision from Trump.
“They could either hit it off amazingly or fall out completely,” said Rajiv Kumar, an economist and author of a book, to my colleagues. “They’re both strong personalities, and both of them have a rather exalted opinion of themselves.”
The chances they “fall out completely” are slim despite their high self-regard. Modi, like Trump, is a purveyor of amicable, businesslike conversation – even if it masks festering concerns. The two are likely to focus on bright spots, such as the fact that the U.S. is India’s second-largest defense supplier, or that the Trump administration recently approved a $2 billion deal to sell India drones to protect its coastline. A much larger order for fighter jets is in the works.
Beyond defense sales, however, the conversational landscape is bleak. Larger geopolitical issues – Trump’s rapprochement with China, which India views warily at best, or his cheerleading of coal production at the expense of the Paris climate deal Modi has championed – will require delicate phrasing, if Modi chooses to broach them at all.
Economic matters are prickly, too. The Trump administration has launched a review of the skilled-worker (or H-1B) visa program that has brought hundreds of thousands of Indian employees to American companies. Cutbacks to the number of H-1B visas issued would harm big Indian outsourcing companies such as Infosys and Wipro, whose executives argue that the visa program helps American companies cut costs and ultimately hire more Americans. The Trump administration is also reviewing trade agreements with countries, including India, with which the United States runs a trade deficit. Bilateral trade has doubled in a decade, but the value of Indian exports to the U.S. is currently $30 billion higher than the flow of goods the other way.
None of this is helped by the lack of India expertise on Trumps’s advising team. Recent reports indicate that Ken Juster, a senior official at the White House’s National Economic Council who has policy experience on India, will be named as ambassador to New Delhi. But it’s unclear whether that announcement would be ready in time for Monday’s meeting – or whether the move is happening thanks to Juster’s qualifications or because of infighting between him and the “anti-globalist” wing of the White House advisers.
But while much of the conversation around Modi’s visit has centered on how Modi can ingratiate himself with Trump, some commentators in India are questioning the assumption that Modi’s objective should be winning the American president’s approval.
Writing in the Indian Express newspaper, columnist and editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that Modi has already missed the big opportunity Trump’s election provided: to make India a “normative exemplar” of liberal democracies now that the United States acts less and less like one.
“Modi’s handshake with Trump would be so much more a show of power if it had the imprimatur of liberal values than simply a deal for Lockheed Martin behind it,” Mehta wrote.
While Modi and his Hindu nationalist ideology are popular at home, recent lynchings of minority-group members have raised concerns that Modi is not doing enough to discourage deadly vigilantism. Modi’s political party named a Hindu monk known for anti-Muslim rhetoric as the leader of India’s biggest state, an act widely seen as an implicit endorsement of discriminatory attitudes. And a flurry of states moving to prohibit cattle slaughter have made many Indians wonder whether Hindu principles are becoming the law of the land under Modi’s supposedly secular government.
So perhaps Modi’s visit to Washington will provide both leaders with a welcome distraction from troublesome domestic politics. But ultimately, both at home and abroad, Trump has far weightier problems to deal with, and India doesn’t figure centrally in any of them. Any small win Modi might get from the trip will probably be enough to declare it worthwhile.