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Caution, optimism: What a Trump administration could mean for India

The Indian system is concerned at the strong isolationist streak in Donald Trump’s worldview. The overriding view of Trump is uncertainty: he has said little of substance on foreign policy and his advisors are unknown unknowns.

us presidential election Updated: Nov 09, 2016 22:03 IST
US election 2016,Donald Trump,president-elect
A traditional wooden Matryoshka doll depicting US president-elect Donald Trump is displayed at a shop in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, November 9, 2016. (AP)

Like other countries around the world, India is bracing for a “bigly” world order – to use Donald Trump’s trademark adjective for huge. The US president-elect has generally spoken positively about India.

On the other hand, the Indian system is concerned at the strong isolationist streak in Trump’s worldview. The overriding view of Trump is uncertainty: he has said little of substance on foreign policy and his advisors are unknown unknowns.

Some Indian commentators noted that early in 2016, Trump declared India had become a “top place” for investment following Narendra Modi’s election, spoke of India “doing great” economically, and expressed surprise more people weren’t talking about its 7% growth rate.

He called Pakistan “the most dangerous country in the world today” and said “the only country that can check Pakistan is India”. Trump also spoke aggressively about China – but only in the context of trade.

Reflecting this view, Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Analysis argued, “Trump has repeatedly praised India and Indians. Moreover, his commitment to fight extremism and terrorism jibes well with Indian interests. All in all, India should be relieved that he, not Hillary Clinton, will be the next American president.”

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However, Trump also denounced job outsourcing to India, even making fun of the accents of Indian call centre workers.

Within the Indian system, there is a sense Trump has no coherent view of South Asia. His excitement about India seemed to arise from two buildings coming up in India bearing his franchise name and, later, conservative Hindu American groups becoming major contributors to his campaign.

It is the nature of Trump’s worldview that worries India policy-makers more. A careful analysis of Trump’s foreign policy statements over 30 years by Thomas Wright in Foreign Policy magazine showed he believed the US is overcommitted around the world and is unfairly treated by trade agreements, and that he admired “authoritarian strongmen”.

New Delhi, having already seen how Barack Obama’s isolationist bouts led to the Taliban’s return in Afghanistan and encouraged China to push its territorial claims in the western Pacific, worries Trump will inadvertently encourage Beijing to push the geopolitical envelope even more.

Trump has talked of destroying the Islamic State, referring airily to a “secret plan” when asked how. But India will be relieved if Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin softens US diplomacy. The West’s economic sanctions, Indian officials often complain, drove Russia into the arms of China.

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On the other hand, Trump has repeatedly expressed a curious dislike for Japan, a country that has emerged as one of India’s closest strategic partners.

There are two other areas where Trump’s policies will run counter to Indian interests. One is immigration. If there was one leitmotif of Trump’s campaign, it was his constant barrage against immigrants. It has been pointed out Trump wants a freeze on new green cards and a restructuring of the H-1B visa programme to make it harder for US firms to hire skilled workers from abroad. Indians are the primary recipients of H-1B visas.

The other is climate change, which Modi sees as an almost existential threat to India. Trump denies such a problem even exists. India developed a large number of collaborations with the US in climate change, especially in clean energy. Modi’s idea was to use these platforms to channel US private investment and technology to help India reach its ambitious climate targets, says Arunabha Ghosh, head of the Council for Environment, Energy and Water.

“Trump might not vapourise all these initiatives overnight but it does not bode well for deepening and solidifying this partnership,” he said.

Ultimately, like much of the world, India is unclear about the policy directions of a Trump administration. Nirupama Rao, a former Indian envoy to Washington, said: “India should not waste time in reaching out to Mr Trump and his team in order to establish a durable understanding that will take the relationship forwards in all sectors of relevance.”

First Published: Nov 09, 2016 18:35 IST