June 26 will see the coming together of the government heads of the oldest and the largest democracies in the world. Narendra Modi and Donald Trump will bare their minds to explore ways for deeper engagement on issues of mutual interest.
Modi is meeting an American President who seems to be xenophobic on immigrants and also sounds inward-looking by thrusting ‘America First’ above anything. His world view is shaped and sustained by how he sees benefits for the US in everything. He also sounds less keen on strategic relations nurtured by his predecessor.
Like many world leaders, Modi will be at a loss to size up Trump who tends to be mercurial and unpredictable, gives go-by to diplomatic niceties. Moreover, the meeting is taking place at a time when Trump is facing a serious domestic political turmoil over his proximity to Russians and the latter’s alleged role in influencing Americans to veer towards Trump.
From his end, Trump will meet a strategic ally who has a lot of heartburn over his rant against India while exiting the Paris pact. His curbs on H1B visas hurt Indian companies most, and unsettled Indians working in the US.
That the meeting is going to be business-like can be gleaned from the choice of the venue. Trump will meet Modi at White House, whereas he had leisurely confabulated with Japan's Abe and China's Xi at his personal resort, Mar-a-Lago. The visit may at best turn out to be no more than a mere get-to-know-me opportunity for both.
Modi will have to put his finest diplomatic skills to spell India's vision and keenness for stronger partnership with US. If he gets to raise the touchy issue of H1B visas, their staunchest views would come face to face i.e., Modi’s ‘Make in India‘ vs Trump’s ‘America First.’
Trump’s strident policy stance led him within a week of his ascent as the President to pull out US from Trans-Pacific Partnership, alleging unfair and discriminatory practices by trading partners. In respect of India, the US ran a $24.3 billion trade deficit in 2016, which may put Modi at unease should his counterpart raise the issue and demand clearing of trade barriers.
The world is at present seeing a more businessman in Trump rather than a statesman, for he let Saudi – apparently in return for over $120 billion defence orders – isolate Qatar and ratchet up tensions in the Gulf. For him, China’s status as a top importer for the US may count more than a strategic tie-up with India. India willingly became a pivot of the US for a permanent seat at Security Council and membership in Nuclear Suppliers Group, and also for facing a growing Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.
Hence, notwithstanding stressful issues like outsourcing, trade barriers, curbs on H1B visas, both leaders must find common ground on cross-border terrorism, deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, world economy etc. They must outline a common vision and find ways to take forward the partnership. The meeting is crucial for India, for it is Modi’s understanding of Trump that will prepare India to adjust itself for future bilateral policy outcomes