Modi in Washington: Decoding Trump on trade
India?s trade future with the US under Trump is only clear in broad outlines. The military and corporations will be attended to, but to what extent is unknown. Photograph: (Reuters)
Trump said trade with India must be “fair and reciprocal”. This open-ended statement comes amid a background of Western business institutions urging more from India, from London’s Economist, America’s New York Times, to the World Bank.
Indians may be forgiven for feeling confused. Modi’s prime directive is modernizing and opening up the economy. He works under the assumption that the needs of Big Business are the needs of the nation. After a few years in power, after the shock of demonetisation and reforms like streamlining the GST, Western business still demands more?
Yes. If Trump's “fair and reciprocal” means anything, it means more for the US. But more of what?
Why it’s hard to know precisely
In an alarming break from tradition, reporters from both the American and Indian delegations at the White House Rose Garden were banned from asking their customary two questions each, even as Trump praised his accessibility to the public. He cited his direct contact with his millions of Twitter followers. Not only does social media let him bypass media fact-checking, but perhaps half of his 31 million Twitter followers are literally not human beings, let alone American voters — they are bots.
A new PEW poll shows 75 per cent of the world has “little or no confidence” in Trump. Indian media has been giddy seeing their leader in a place which, at least historically, carries global prestige. But when trying to discern what Trump will mean to India, they must resist falling into the gullible 25 per cent.
What is known so far
Earlier in June, US giant Lockheed Martin Corp signed a letter of intent to work with Tata, the Indian conglomerate, to produce combat jets in India, the Indian Express reports. In the days leading up to the meet, the US pledged to supply 22 Guardian drones to help the Indian Navy’s intelligence gathering capability.
Trump framed the military sale as a security partnership aimed at “destroying radical Islamic terrorism”, but actually the drones will be used by India to monitor Chinese activity in the South China Sea. True, the US designated Syed Salahuddin, India’s arch foe in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a global terrorist. This is of course welcome news in India.
The point isn’t that Trump is necessarily disingenuous in his pledge to work with India on security , it’s that he was wildly incoherent recently on exactly this question: Weeks ago Trump declared Qatar a state-sponsor of terrorism, then days later the US committed to selling them $12 billion in fighter jets.
American journalists, who rightfully tried to make their voices heard despite the unprecedented ban on questions, asked about Trump’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, which is set to take 22 million Americans off medical insurance. These journalists were ignored.
On the Indian side are students already in the US, or hoping to be, worried about their H1B visa. There are Muslims, who for good reason feel under attack in each country. There was no mention of H1B visas, and actually during Modi’s visit Trump broke with 20 years of tradition by not celebrating Eid in the White House.
India’s trade future with the US under Trump is only clear in broad outlines. The military and corporations will be attended to, but to what extent is unknown. On smaller but vital issues that matter to millions of ordinary people in each country, the silence over this two-day meeting spoke volumes.