When US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak later on Tuesday, they could as leaders of the world’s largest and oldest democracies discuss anything under the sun, but trade in services, read H-1B visas, could figure prominently.
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 have been considering ways to make it harder for the firms to do so.
The visa programme is at the heart of India’s burgeoning IT exports to the US, and New Delhi, which views H-1B as a trade issue, believes any attempt to curtail it would amount to initiating protectionist measures.
“There is no other area of potential dispute or difference 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.”
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 for manufacturing and services.
Since being sworn-in last Friday, Trump has begun engaging with world leaders and has spoken to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will meet UK Prime Minister Teresa May on Friday.
Modi was among the first world leaders to call Trump on the morning of November 9, just hours after his victory. And the call on Tuesday, the second day of his first week in office, is being taken as a sign of the priority Trump attaches to the relationship.
At the suggestion of his Indian-American supporters, Trump had recorded a campaign call modelled on Modi’s election slogan “aab ki baar Modi sarkar”. The Trump slogan went: “aab ki baar Trump sarkar”.