By Preity Upala
Sunday the 22nd of September was a historic day for the USA when a sitting US president was a guest in the largest gathering in America of a foreign head of state. Indian Prime minister, Hon Narendra Modi spoke to the largest gathering in the US of over 50,000 in Houston, Texas. In what is being described as an unprecedented gesture of solidarity, US President Donald Trump was present in Houston to share the stage with Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi during his mega rally. The official statement from the White house was “ This event will be a great opportunity to emphasize the strong ties between the people of the US and India. It will also reaffirm strategic partnership between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracy”.
Although they make up only 1% of the US population, close to 4 million, Indian Americans are the most educated and richest of all the ethnic groups in the US, including white Americans. They are increasingly an important vote bank, known to generously donate and support various politicians and candidates. Trump was playing his “Trump” card to sway some of the Indian voters in his favour.
The US-India relationship has evolved through the last few decades and perhaps may be at least visually the closest today. President Trump thanked the Indian American community for their contribution to the US and applauded Modi on removing 300 million Indians out of Poverty in the last 5 years. He re-iterated that India will have a true friend in the White House with his administration. He also noted the launch of NBA in India, he jokingly asked if he was invited, as he may actually show up! Modi joked that Trump calls him a Master negotiater, but he has learnt a lot from Trump himself who did write the Art of the Deal”!
PM Modi spoke about development in India and the emergence of a “Digital India”. He quoted that “Data is the new oil “ and articulated how Data can be consumed for the lowest price in the world in India and how it aspires to be the tech capital of the world.
The fight against global terrorism was discussed and the need to curb it. Even in the matter of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the US is rethinking its options and strategies. President Trump stressed that the US is an important player in the fight against global Islamic terror. He pointed that the two countries share a common love for liberty, freedom and democracy.
On paper, the two should be strong allies and have great business relations. Both are secular liberal democracies, enjoy free market capitalism, have shared values, shared threats and an identical moral compass. This has however not been the reality on the ground. So, what have been some of the issues that have come in the way of better relations between the two powers? Over the last few decades, this dynamic has certainly evolved, leaving behind the famous description of the “Economic Cooperation between the two powers as being “Flat as a Chapatti”!
Trade has quadrupled to 150 Billion in the last eight years, and US investments in India has crossed the 50 Billion mark. India has cleared 286 projects worth 97 Billion last year. Indian companies have invested 17 Billion in the US, 350 Million of which is in R &D and recent Aircraft Defense contracts have created 40,000 jobs in the US. But there is still a long way to go. A fair dialogue should also take place considering India’s priorities and concerns. Demonizing the climate of doing business in India by US companies could end up being counter productive.
The Minister of External Affairs for India, Dr. Subramanyam Jaishankar on his recent visit to the US stated that he sees far fewer issues than India’s own protectionism that have been obstacles to doing business. One area is the Energy sector. India is the third largest consumer of energy and imports most of its energy needs from the Gulf. The recent deal of an Indian company’s off take of Shell gas will have huge positive ramifications for the Indian economy.
He states “If we look at the growth areas of the relationship, the ability and willingness to work together is there. I do see and hear an America which wants to a much more partnership based management of world security”. An example of this is the fact that the US Navy exercises more with the Indian Navy than anyone else in the world. He stressed that the limitations put on H1B visas to skilled Indian workers hurts the US more than it does India, especially when there is a skill shortage in the technology sector. Half of Sillicon Valley is Indian. Hopefully an immigration reform is coming in the near future which is much fairer. It would also shape the Indian perception of how open is the US economy.
He goes on to say “Once we have a political and military comfort level, we can come into any situation with harmony and can collaborate on many global initiatives together, be it humanitarian operations or counter- terrorism exercises”. Relationships are never easy. The grand strategy underwriting our ties in fundamentally sound. It needs maintenance and from time to time, and once in a while even an upgrade!
International diplomacy is a delicate balancing act. India has good relations with Iran as well as Russia and China, all of whom are adversarial to the US. On the other hand, the US gives Billions in aid to Pakistan who in turn sponsors cross border terrorism as well as training and giving refuge to radical Islamic jihadist elements. Having said that India does see the US as a stabilizing presence in Asia.
Asia is an area whose security architecture is very much under evolution. When you have two important players who have broadly a convergence and comfort level of working together, its imperative that the two should do so.
During a joint press conference recently in India, Secretary Mike Pompeo and Dr. Jaishankar shared their sentiments “Great friends are bound to have differences”. Both see market access and a removal of trade barriers as a step to improving trade relations. Mr. Pompeo stressed that the USA is committed to ensure that India has the military capability to uphold it’s territorial integrity and this would include intelligence and information sharing to fight terrorism. He admitted that China’s BRI- Belt and Road Initiatives to nations in the sub-continent comes with “not strings attached but with shackles”. Regarding the recent purchase of the S-400 Missile system by India from Russia, an issue that has been a matter of contention, he reassured that the US understands and stands by India’s safety needs and that both countries will plot a path forward to do the right thing for both countries. He ended by saying that the together should act quickly to fulfill the ambitious vision of prosperity provided by President Trump and PM Modi not just for our two countries, but the region and the world at large.
The Indian-American Diaspora plays a huge role in the US-India relationship. No major foreign policy has worked where the India-American community has not played such an important role. The average American’s impression of India is very much shaped by their interaction with the Indian community and today that impression is a very positive one.
President Trump’s recent visit to the Motera stadium in India for the ‘Namaste Trump’ event only cemented the friendship that the countries enjoy, demonstrated by the 130,000 people present at the stadium and many more hundreds of thousands who lined up the streets from the airport to the stadium. Trump’s biggest rally of his life ended with a $3 Billion deal of Advanced American Military equipment including Apache and MH60 helicopters with a trade deal to follow.
The recent global infuriation with China and the CCP- Chinese Communist Party due to their recklessness in the creation and transparency about the COVID 19 virus only creates a space for India to fill in the global sphere. Supplying the USA and the world with the much in demand HCQ- Hydrochroloquine has left everyone indebted to India. It can prove that India is more than just a shoulder for the US to rest on while taking aim at China. As the rift between the US and China increases, India’s opportunity to tighten it’s alliance will only get stronger.
India is an indivisible ally of the US in the 21st century and the US recognizes that. History compels and Destiny beckons these two countries to dance together in the future.
Now that a lot of the prior obstacles for doing business have been cleared, its time to get back to doing business!
Preity Upala is a political editor and analyst based in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in geo-political strategies, international affairs, conflict resolution and counter-terrorism.