As a reality TV star, Donald Trump liked to say “predictable is bad”. The first 100 days of President Trump could carry the motto “unpredictable is constant”.
While the whimsy of the administration’s early days is palpably reduced, New Delhi remains uncertain about the strategic bedrock of the relationship. The deciding factors : The trajectory of Trump’s relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and how Washington sees Afghanistan’s future.
The Indian government has met every star in the Trump constellation. From son-in-law Jared Kushner to ideologue-in-chief Stephen Bannon, from self-effacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to National Security Adviser HR McMaster, New Delhi has reached out to all and sundry.
The Indian government has been “strategically reassured”, say senior officials, and the atmosphere is positive. But India has yet to really register on the Trump world view. Putting it another way: If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump were to eventually have their face-to-face meeting, would the agenda have enough positive elements?
The Indian interest of past US presidents, notably George W Bush and Barack Obama, was driven by their sense India was an important piece in their strategic jigsaw puzzle. Trump is the first White House resident since World War 1 who has come to office without a geopolitical mural painted in his mind.
Which is why Trump got into a catfight with Australia, historically the US’s closest ally, over a minor refugee deal and waxed poetic about Vladimir Putin, enemy number two or three for the US security establishment. He was blind to the strategic backdrop.
A hundred days since, that is less true. His foreign and defence policy team is cut from establishment cloth. The sole maverick, McMaster predecessor Mike Flynn, was brought down by the anti-Putin blowback that has snuffed out Trump’s “to Russia with love” hopes.
India would be pleased if it was certain these known figures were deciding Trump’s foreign policy. Many come out of the India-US heyday under Bush. But US actions remain wayward. The decision to drop the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan and the order to send a carrier task force to North Korea, it now seems, were not executive signals.
They were acts of local US military commanders. Trump gave a thumbs-up post facto. On the other hand, the Syrian cruise missile strike was an Oval Office order.
India has a number of positives to sell to the US: Common views on Islamist terror, broadly similar stance on China and an appetite for low-cost US hydrocarbon exports.
But India is a net negative in Trump’s anti-immigration narrative while Modi is a climate true-believer. If US-China relations go downhill over North Korea, India will benefit. If a Pakistani jihadi shows up in New York, ditto.
The challenge New Delhi feels is for India to find traction with the US president in its own right. That is still a work in progress with the noise over H-1B visas being an unhelpful distraction.
The first 100 days have been a lesson in how a superpower functions without a strategy. The next few hundred days will tell us how prominently the word “India” can be written on the Trump tabula rasa.