As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the U.S. over the weekend, President Trump tweeted a warm welcome, calling the Indian leader “a true friend.” The two are meeting for the first time at the White House Monday afternoon, Modi having arrived for a brief, two-day call — not a state visit, but a working one.
Perhaps that’s fitting, as there is so much in the relationship to work on.
A host of issues now divides the two leaders, including the Paris climate change agreement, which Modi supports and Trump rejects, and the treatment of Iran as a pariah state, which Trump supports and Modi rejects. India wants the U.S. to ensure visas for its skilled workers, including IT engineers. But Trump says the visas have been misused and undermine jobs for Americans.
Perhaps the most important outcome of their meeting will be putting to rest the notion that the U.S.-India relationship is adrift.
Maya Mirchandani, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank, says the fact it has taken until now for Trump to sit down with Modi has prompted anxiety in India that New Delhi is no longer a priority in the Oval Office.
“We have seen both President Bush and President Obama give India a sense of primacy that’s been missing in the last six months,” Mirchandani said. “That’s something [both sides] might hope to correct.”
Sounding a reassuring note, a senior White House official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the Trump administration is interested in maintaining the same “strategic partnership” India enjoyed under the Obama administration, when the reserved Obama and the more casual Modi hit it off so well they were dubbed the “odd couple.”
But the Trump administration has yet to articulate an overall South Asia policy. There is no U.S. ambassador in New Delhi (though White House aide Kenneth Juster is reported as a likely candidate to fill the slot) and no assistant secretary is in place for South Asian affairs at the State Department — diplomatic absences that cannot help but cause even more unease in New Delhi.
Defense ties are strengthening, though, as the U.S. is poised to sell more arms to India. In the last decade, it’s sold $15 billion worth of weaponry to New Delhi, according to the senior White House official who briefed reporters on the visit. Modernizing India’s defenses will strengthen both countries, she said. The same could be said for the thousands of Indians studying in the United States, whose talents can benefit both countries.
Modi has called India’s relationship with the U.S. “multi-layered and diverse,” noting it extends well beyond government-to-government, and said he looked forward to an “in-depth exchange of views” with President Trump to “consolidate” the “wide-ranging partnership.”
But the Indian leader’s visit comes at an inopportune time, as the president and his team are distracted by domestic political and legal challenges.
The voluble Modi will be in listening mode, says Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary — eager to hear the president’s world view, especially on China, and where India fits into Trump’s evolving Asia policy.
Trump already “has had a very important meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. What is his sense of how China-U.S. relations will develop?” asks Saran. “We also see the need for there being a role for India to perform,” he adds. “After all, we have a certain interest, common interest, in having a more balanced architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Modi will also be keen to know more about Trump’s policy in the Middle East, especially in the wake of recent Saudi and Gulf state moves against Qatar for its alleged support of terrorists. With millions of Indian citizens working in Gulf countries, India watches developments like this with alarm.
In the thicket of diplomacy, Modi must also to try to grasp an unpredictable U.S. president who derides China as a “currency manipulator” one day, but later calls President Xi “a great guy.”
“What is really disconcerting in New Delhi is what you get on Monday is not necessarily what you get on Tuesday,” says Milan Vaishnav, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “This kind of 180-degree turn is very concerning to India.”
Vaishnav says Modi’s priorities include making progress on proposed new U.S. visa restrictions that could affect the status of India’s skilled workers — and correct the record on climate change. When President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, he said India had predicated its participation on receiving “billions and billions and billions of dollars of foreign aid,” a remark that incensed New Delhi, where leaders said it was patently untrue.
The competing visions of the two leaders — both inspired by nationalist impulses — may be the most significant hurdle for smooth relations. The two men rose to office by appealing to majorities who felt persecuted or overlooked — fundamentalist Hindus in Modi’s case, and aggrieved white voters in Trump’s. Modi wants to turn India into a manufacturing powerhouse and enlist American businesses to create jobs that would lift millions of Indians from poverty. Trump wants to keep American businesses and jobs at home.
While both men are pragmatic deal-makers, Vaishnav wonders whether Trump’s “America First” policy can be flexible enough to accommodate India and its need to grow.
“I think we’ve now come to a fork in the road, and it’s not clear which way we are going to go,” he says.
For all their differences, though, Trump and Modi share key traits: They positioned themselves as outsiders and rose to the pinnacle of an insider’s game. They brook no criticism and believe in personal diplomacy. Both are large personalities with a penchant for surprise and a deep disdain for the media — unless they’re using it to further their own ends.
Trump and Modi are the two elected leaders with the most followers on Twitter, and both leapfrogged over the mainstream media in their rise to power.
Mirchandani expects this is one area in which the two will find common ground.
“They will certainly see eye to eye,” she says, “on making a mockery of the media.”