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Trump-Modi dinner: What’s cooking, what’s on menu?

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modi-trump-newIt promises to be a gourmet meal as the leaders of the world’s oldest and largest democracies have their first full-spectrum meeting and dinner in Washington DC on June 26. The buzz and hype surrounding India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fifth visit to the US is relatively subdued – the carnival-like festive atmosphere and feverish energy that marked his first visit to the US, with his rock-star like show at Madison Square Garden, in September 2014 seems a distant echo. But even though the horizon of expectations has shrunk, there are still some appetising dishes on the table which both sides can pick and choose to suit their taste and transact some serious business.

Transactional? Not to worry…

“Transactional” seems to have a bad odour for some idealists, but having an overtly transactional, business-minded, deal-making America First President in the White House may work better for India in the short term as well as long-term. President Donald Trump may not have an evocative moniker for India-US ties like his predecessor did with his mantra of “the defining partnership of the 21st century.”

True Friend?

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But the resonance of some Trump’s gestures should not be missed: PM Modi will be the first foreign leader Trump will be hosting for dinner in the White House, and in his latest tweet, he has called him a “true friend.” Going beyond optics, that simple expression, “a true friend” can potentially encapsulate the trajectory of India-US relations under the Trump presidency. In a seminal sense, the last transformative decade in India-US relationship has circled around quibbles about true friendship, and the potential of this friendship to slide into betrayal, deceptions and misplaced expectations.

The big question, therefore, for India is whether President Trump, for all his legendary unpredictability and volatility in temperament and policy pronouncements, can be a true friend of India. PM Modi and his team has already firmed up some yardsticks by which this true friendship can be judged. New Delhi has its own wish-list and would proclaim Trump as India’s best friend if he can make concessions on the big-ticket issues that impact on India’s core national interests and its global geopolitical agenda.

These all-too-real issues of concern for India are a favourable regime of H1B visas for India’s IT professionals, US’ continuing support for India’s developmental agenda underpinned by flagship schemes of national resurgence like Smart City, Digital India and Start-up India, Washington’s action plan in dealing with a terror-sponsoring Pakistan and Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and the new president’s view of India’s role in the region and beyond in the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China which is re-engineering its global ascent with a new script of One Belt, One Road. On all these counts, it will be unrealistic for India to expect optimal results – at best, one can expect President Trump to gauge and appreciate India’s position and aspirations and figure out how far they fit into his matrix of transactional economics and geopolitics.

Getting to know: Personal Chemistry

In fact, the first meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Trump will be less transactional and more ideational – it will be an essay in mutual understanding and developing that elusive yet quintessential personal chemistry. Mr Modi had famously forged this personal chemistry with Trump’s predecessor Obama, and was fond of calling him by his first name. On June 26, we will know whether this first-name camaraderie– “Narendra-Donald” bonhomie – will develop between the two leaders, who are radically different in their background and personal tastes – the flamboyant billionaire tycoon and a tea-seller-turned-politician who fasted during his first trip to the US, but held America spellbound with his oratory, present a study in contrasts.

With a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm and sobering realities of a changed Washington, this personal equation with the leader of the world’s most powerful country could be, after all, the most meaningful and enduring outcome of Mr Modi’s first visit to the US under the new dispensation in DC. This personal chemistry could set the tone and direction for the India-US relations for the next four years. But Mr Modi will be advised not to bank too much on this elusive chemistry, and widen the arc of engagement with the powerful bureaucracy and power brokers that keeps the Beltway Washington humming, and could insulate India from Mr Trump’s fabled mood swings.

New India & Making America Great Again

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Looking ahead, cutting through minutiae and complexity of issues, the really important question for India is whether the new US president believes in a “New India” which PM Modi is trying to create and whether this new India synthesises with Trump’s promise of Making America Great Again. If there is win-win fit, then indeed the chronic “hesitations of history” will be passe, and a new symphony can steer India-US relations onto a higher trajectory.

manish-chand-photo-2017(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India and World magazine and India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a pioneering portal focused on international affairs. He is CEO of TGII Media Private Limited, a leading media, publishing and research/consultancy company)

 


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Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-magazine focused on international affairs, emerging powers and the India Story.

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