Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump discussed India-US ties in a phone call late on Tuesday that was their first conversation after the new US head of state took office. They first spoke in November just after Trump’s election win.
Though details were awaited, an official described the call as a “great conversation”.
It was earlier expected that trade in services, read H-1B visas, would figure prominently in the talks between the two leaders who head the world’s largest and oldest democracies.
The fate of the temporary US visa programme for high-skilled foreign workers is India’s most significant concern from the Trump administration, given Trump’s reservations about it, and those of leading members of his team.
They believe the H-1B programme is being abused by US companies to outsource American jobs to temporary foreign workers, a large number of them from India, and they have been considering ways to make it harder for that to happen.
“There is no other area of potential dispute or differences with the US under President Trump,” said an Indian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He added, “H-1B is the only problem for us as of now.”
The programme is at the heart of India’s burgeoning IT exports to the US, and New Delhi, which views H-1B as a free-trade issue, believes any attempt to curtail it would amount to initiating protectionist measures.
In response to a question about India-US relations, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had said on Monday that, as with other countries, the Trump administration is focussed on access to markets in manufacturing and services.
Since being sworn-in last Friday, Trump has begun engaging with world leaders and has spoken to leaders of neighboring Canada and Mexico first — with whom he plans to renegotiate the NAFTA trade deal.
He has also talked with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he invited to a meeting in early February. And he will meet Theresa May, prime minister of America’s closest ally the United Kingdom, on Friday.
Modi was among the first world leaders to call on November 9 to congratulate Trump, demonstrating, according to sources, a willingness to engage with the new president with as much enthusiasm as with his predecessor.
The call on Tuesday, the second day of Trump’s first week in office, is being taken as a sign of the priority he is attaching to the relationship, after an unprecedented outreach to the Indian American community during the election.
And at the suggestion of Republican Hindu Coalition founder Shalli Kumar, Trump recorded a campaign call modelled on Modi’s own election slogan “aab ki baar Modi sarkar”. The Trump slogan went: “aab ki baar Trump sarkar”.
Also, Modi appears to have an admirer in Steve Bannon, chief strategist and senior counselor to Trump, who had in 2014 called Modi’s win a “great victory…very much based on…Reaganesque principles”.
Bannon was then CEO of Breitbart News, a stridently conservative news publication. He would become a leading and early supporter of Trump, and would go on to head his campaign in August.