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Trump’s 100 days in office: India hopeful but apprehensive over H-1B, hate crime

Observers say it’s likely that Trump sees India ‘very favourably’ but they also argue that biggest impact of Trump presidency on India has been an ‘increase in uncertainty’.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2017 07:14 IST
Yashwant Raj
US President Donald Trump with US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and NSA HR McMaster. Haley is the first Indian American ever to occupy a cabinet-rank position.
US President Donald Trump with US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and NSA HR McMaster. Haley is the first Indian American ever to occupy a cabinet-rank position.(AFP Photo)

As the US presidential candidate, Donald Trump had said he loved India, that he was a “big fan”, and vowed to make the two countries the “best of friends” if elected. However, his 100 days in office — although too short a time-frame to judge him — raise questions if he had meant a dose of tough love.

Since his ascension in mid-January, Indians and those of Indian descent have seen a shocking spurt in hate-crimes, including the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and the assault on Ankur Mehta.

Indian tech firms such as Infosys, TCS and Cognizant have come under withering scrutiny, with their H-1B-dependent business model being challenged publicly. Also, India’s trifling trade surplus with the US — $24 billion — has made it subject to an investigation, along with others like China, Japan, and Mexico, to ascertain if it was due to cheating or “other inappropriate behaviour”.

However, Indian Americans cutting across party affiliations have also noted with a sense of accomplishment the number of community members who have been placed at senior levels in the administration. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, is the first Indian American ever to occupy a cabinet-rank position. Seema Verma, another Indian American, holds a key post in the health and human services while Ajit Pai heads the Federal Communications Commission. That’s a fairly decent crop.

Crowds fill in the National Mall in Washington before the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States during the 58th Presidential Inauguration on Capitol. (AP File Photo)

There has also been a marked increase in communication between the two governments, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory call that — Indian officials say with smug satisfaction — was among the first five that Trump accepted.

And the Trump administration appears to have taken a line on Pakistan that New Delhi will approve. During a visit to the region recently, US NSA HR McMaster said Pakistan ought to be “less selective than it has been in the past” while dealing with terrorists.

Do these separate narratives tell a story?

“I think it’s highly likely that Trump sees India very favourably,” said Alyssa Ayres, South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He has some specific economic ideas about what the United States’ trade ties should look like with all countries— including India. But that’s definitely not limited to India.”

“India will have to get used to a president who takes a balance-sheet approach like this,” she added.

However, Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie said the biggest impact of the Trump presidency on India (and Indians) has been a marked “increase in uncertainty”. “Even after 100 days, it is virtually impossible to say anything about the Trump administration with a high degree of confidence. The policy seems fluid, and decision-making not subject to any clearly defined process as yet,” Vaishnav added.

President Donald Trump will complete his 100 days in office on April 29. (AP File Photo)

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with Wilson Center, advocated giving Trump some more time.

The Trump administration began tightening H-1B visa rules the morning after foreign secretary S Jaishankar had wrapped up a series of meetings with cabinet-level officials, including secretary of state Rex Tillersen, in the United States in March.

That didn’t look too good for India, especially because officials had reported getting a “degree of understanding” to their concerns about H-1B restrictions that were widely expected then.

But 100 days isn’t enough to do everything, right?

Racist attacks

Barely two weeks after President Trump’s election in November, Indian American Ankur Mehta was brutally assaulted at a bar in Pennsylvania by a man who told him, “Things are different now… I don’t want you sitting next to me, you people.”

The assailant had mistaken Mehta for a Muslim from the Middle East, a demographic that had witnessed increasing hostility due to Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric as the Republican presidential nominee. Srinivas Kuchibhotla died a few months later at the hands of another man motivated by similar sentiments. A few weeks later, Indian Sikh Deep Rai was shot at and told to return to his country.

Indians and Indian Americans were shocked. Democrat Shekar Narasimhan said the President had blood on his hands, blaming his rhetoric for the rise in Islamophobia — besides mistrust and suspicion — among Americans.

If not for Ian Grillot, the man who suffered grievous injuries when he had tried to stop Kuchibhotla’s shooter, Trump’s America would have seemed every bit the grim place that some feared it may become on his watch.

“This is the worst face of America — the potential for racism and violence,” said Ayres. “But you also saw some inspirational moments like that of Ian Grillot and the generosity showed by the Houston Indian American community with their fund-raiser and recognition of Grillot’s courage.”

The H-1B issue

For weeks after the President’s inauguration, some executives at Indian tech firms said they had been getting up every morning in dread of that one tweet that could change – probably for the worse – the way they did business in the US.

However, the much-feared crackdown on the H-1B temporary visa programme for high-skilled foreign workers came not through one tweet or executive order, but in a steady stream of technical rejigs and upgrades.

It had the same effect, though. The administration suspended “premium processing” of applications, which involves fast-tracking applications for a fee, and changed the definition of “speciality occupation” to raise the bar to qualify. Employers were warned against fraud, and using the programme to displace American workers – as many in the administration, including the President, believed was happening.

Then came an executive order instructing federal agencies to review the H-1B programme with the aim of ending fraud and abuse, and ensuring that only the most skilled and highest-paid people were taken in. This was done with the overarching goal of protecting American workers.

The war was on. And for those still confused about the objective, the Trump administration couldn’t have been clearer when an official named three Indian companies while previewing the executive order. “You may know their names well, but the top recipients of the H-1B visa are companies like Tata, Infosys and Cognizant. They will apply for a very large number of visas, more than they get, by putting extra tickets in the lottery raffle, if you will, and then they’ll get the lion’s share of visas,” the official said. New Delhi is worried, of course, and finance minister Arun Jaitley conveyed India’s concerns to the Trump administration in his meetings with secretaries Wilbur Ross and Steven Mnuchin in DC recently.

Though some experts have sought to dismiss the H-1B issue as an “irritant”, Ayres argues it is the manifestation of the administration’s focus on reviewing economic ties .

G-to-G

When Trump called Modi to congratulate him on the BJP’s stunning victory in the Uttar Pradesh elections, many wondered if that was routine. President Barack Obama, for one, never called after world leaders over state elections. As German chancellor Angela Merkel also received a call after her party’s victory in a provincial election, it could be argued that Modi was no exception. But the call, a White House official insisted, was entirely Trump’s idea because “he follows news”.

The two governments have demonstrated a marked inclination to engage frequently, starting with Modi’s congratulatory call to Trump on the morning of his November 8 victory. That was followed by a series of high-level interactions with the incoming administration — meetings with vice-president-elect Mike Pence and then NSA Mike Flynn — and another round of meetings after the inauguration.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley held the Modi government’s first cabinet-level meetings with the Trump administration in the past week.

This had followed meetings between NSA Ajit Doval and his US counterpart, Lt General HR McMaster, as and defence secretary James Mattis.

Ayres, who once headed the India desk at the State Department, believes these official-level meetings – especially Doval’s meeting with McMaster and the latter’s visit to India – “outline the continued strengthening of the United States-India defence relationship… and the reaffirmation of India as a major defence partner”.