Modi-Trump meet: Why business as usual may not be the worst outcome | columns | Hindustan Times
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Modi-Trump meet: Why business as usual may not be the worst outcome

While Trump views the world through the lens of his America First vision and will bring that to the negotiating table, Modi will have to counter with hard selling of the Indian opportunity, with a large quotient of soft soap given how the American president is often driven by ego rather than logic

columns Updated: Jun 24, 2017 00:03 IST
US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Agencies)
US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Agencies)

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Washington this weekend for his maiden tryst with the 45th President of the United States, there is little expectation of a replay of the bromance that had developed with his predecessor Barack Obama.

Shorn of the sideshows that have often featured on Modi’s foreign itineraries, this foray into the Beltway will necessarily be an attempt at taking the mercurial Donald Trump’s temperature when it comes to the bilateral relationship. After all, the current occupant of the Oval Office blows hot and cold.

If while withdrawing America from the Paris climate agreement, Trump’s references to India were pointing to a change of climate in Washington, just this week there were plenty of hints thrown out on matters like a harder line towards Pakistan or a softer approach on H1Bs that may have been a warning of warming.

Since Modi is given to acronyms, this agenda for this visit may be encapsulated thus: Making Out the Donald’s Intentions (or MODI, but obviously). The encounter will be businesslike: Perhaps somewhat like the Art of the Deal meets the Craft of Dhanda.

While Trump views the world through the lens of his America First vision and will bring that to the negotiating table, Modi will have to counter with hard selling of the Indian opportunity, with a large quotient of soft soap given how the American president is often driven by ego rather than logic. In that sense, he will be a difficult customer.

The problem with Trump’s unpredictability is that all manner of persuasion is not necessarily a prescription for future friendliness. Both German chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau have discovered that congenial conferences at the White House haven’t quite coughed up the returns they may have expected. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping, hosted at Mar-a-Lago, isn’t in a comfort zone with Trump. For Modi, therefore, the biggest takeaway will be that the coming rebalance won’t upend the gains of the last two decades without quite relying on another mood upswing. That will require savvy marketing of India, a spiel that Trump will buy into, segueing into the latter’s MAGA mantra. That Indian companies have upped investment in the US, or IT majors are increasingly hiring local workers are selling points.

Observers will pay attention to the body language between the two leaders. Just recently, French President Emmanuel Macron was involved in two episodes that indicated Europe is evolving into a separate bloc and out of the shadow of the US. There was the handshake that shook the world between him and Trump and just about a week separated that from the hug with Modi that embraced that emerging polarity.

It will be interesting to see the body language when Modi and Trump meet — a shake, a hug or just a shrug? Business as usual may not be the worst outcome.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal