The world’s most powerful nation has Donald Trump at its helm. New Delhi and capitals across the world, including Washington, are still getting their heads around this. How do we deal with President Trump, or words to that effect, headline classified policy papers on the desks of dozens of premiers and presidents. Trump’s victory led South Korea’s National Security Council and the European Union foreign ministers to hold emergency meetings.
New Delhi has had its first official interaction with the Trump transition team, initiating the game of finding out the president-elect actual policies, what is just campaign rhetoric and what is just dry leaves blowing outside Trump Tower. Or whether there is any meaningful distinction between the three.
India has reasons for concern regarding a Trump administration. Three obvious ones are immigration, climate change and the Iranian nuclear deal.
The Donald has called for an end to H-1B visas, about half of which are used by Indian infotech workers and one of which, or so she claims, was used by his present wife, Melania. He has said climate change is a product of Chinese propaganda. If true, we would be all fretting about qihou bianhua today. And he has sworn to rip up the Iranian nuclear deal.
And yet Trump also said he supports highly skilled migrants coming to America, said he has an “open mind” about the Paris climate change agreement and, reportedly, even Israel plans to tell him not to be too hasty about trashing the Iranian deal.
One gets a sense that Trump doesn’t have strong opinions about world-defining policy issues. He likes to say it is best to eschew long-term strategising. “I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present,” is a favourite line. The stuff that he has showed strong and consistent opinions about include real estate (he calls it beautiful, solid, tangible), the rapper M&M (he likes) and America’s treaty allies (he thinks they take the US for a ride).
Trump has also said “I love Hindu” but whether this was because the Indian Americans for Trump had donated a lot of money to his campaign, because India is the number one site of new buildings labelled “Trump,” or whether he actually has a good instinct for India remains unclear. However, it does give New Delhi a foothold with the new administration that should be carefully leveraged. Whether you dislike Trump, and there is not too much admire except a genuine ability to entertain crowds and perhaps his hairstyle, the national interest in working with him and furthering India’s agenda is self-evident.
Here are some possible ways to handle the Donald.
One, look for the personal connect. Trump has no world view, no seeming political ideology and is resisting even moving out of his Manhattan penthouse to live in the White House — inadvertently recalling the years 1785 to 1790 when New York City was the nation’s capital. But the recent franchise agreements he has signed with Indian firms have made our country top of the mind. Unlike, say, Japan, which he constantly gripes about, there is no baggage regarding India in Trump’s mind. New Delhi may owe its construction sector a diplomatic favour.
Two, help him keep his white trash constituency happy. Killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an example of how much Trump is determined to cultivate his base. He will seek more sops. India can helpfully note that in a good year it is the fourth-largest importer of American coal. It can display its excellent counterterrorism credentials. It can offer to produce cheap generic medicine of the variety Trump says he needs to reduce healthcare costs.
Three, where Trumpspeak is in conflict with Indian interests, find other arguments to pursue the same policy. India can resurrect dormant plans for clean coal projects that the Obama administration had rejected. It can argue clean energy is a way for both India and the US to reduce Saudi oil imports — something Trump kept threatening during his campaign. Immigration is a bit more difficult but the fact long-legged models are covered by H-1B may lead Trump to change his opinion.
Finally, New Delhi can take some assurance that in the swarm of names making the rounds in the Beltway for the top positions in the Trump administration none has any known animus to India. All of them are part and parcel of a broad consensus in both the Republican and Democratic camps that India and the US are “indispensable partners” in the 21st century. An additional benefit is that many of them have little positive to say about China and Pakistan. That includes Trump, who has called Pakistan “the most dangerous country in the world” even if that may mean its risk premium is too high for luxury apartment construction.
Trump takes pride in being an artist of the deal.
But one has a sense that after a year or so of ribbon-cutting, protocol officers and congressional wheeling and dealing he may soon bore of his presidential duties and hand over much of the running of the government to his underlings. As Trump once said about work-life balance, just “make your work more pleasurable”. Why attend stuffy state banquets when the pleasures of Greenwich Village and Twitter await?
First impressions are important for Donald Trump. The nature of a narcissist is that once he makes up his mind, he never has any self-doubts or second thoughts. “When I think I’m right, nothing bothers me,” Trump likes to say. New Delhi owes a favour of sorts to India’s motley contractor-builder business for leaving a positive impression on the US president-elect. Given the man’s character it may provide India political capital with the new administration far longer that it would have with a run-of-the-mill president who would be more driven by transactional calculations.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi should prepare well before engaging the new US leader. Washington’s landscape will be akin to a California earthquake zone, prone to shift and tremors. The solidity of the superpower is likely to be gone. What is up and what is down could literally be decided by Trump waking up on the wrong side of Melania. As the world’s most powerful man, at least from January 20 onwards, likes to say, “Predictable is bad.”