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Why did President Trump find a true friend in Prime Minister Modi?

PM Narendra Modi hugs Donald Trump at White House Photograph: (Zee News Network)

WION Delhi, India Jun 29, 2017, 10.51 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

It happens to be one of the most successful trips made by an Indian prime minister to the US. Evidently, Modi and Trump have found a "true friend" in each other. The "bear hug" and the "handshake", as well as the joint declaration, indicate that the Modi-Trump summit is far from the cold meeting that happened between Nehru and Kennedy in the 1960s. While India's first prime minister in his disdainful attitude could find little common ground with a rich and arrogant Kennedy, Trump and Modi have agreed on a number of mutually shared interest areas. 

There was little doubt that Modi would find anything less than a sympathetic ear in Trump on matters relating to Islamic terror. However, it came as a surprise to many that, the two leaders would find a common ground of interest in matters related to trade and technology. But Modi's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal clearly brings out how keen the Indian prime minister is to project the bilateral business partnership as the sign of shared commitment to a similar set of political system. Ever since independence, India has done business with the US but never has it been so forthright in claiming that the both countries belong to the same political camp. 

The success of the Modi-Trump meeting effectively displays how political-economic imperatives can overturn the historical trajectory of a bilateral relationship

The success of the Modi-Trump meeting effectively displays how political-economic imperatives can overturn the historical trajectory of a bilateral relationship. A close analysis of Modi and Trump's joint declaration at the conclusion of the meeting reveals that in spite of all the rhetoric surrounding "Make in India" and "Make America Great", both the leaders, in the name of "unleashing amazing prosperity and growth" are willing to find common areas of economic cooperation. 

Just before leaving for his US trip, Modi wrote that India sees the US as the country's "natural partner". Diplomatically speaking, this is a clear departure from the Cold War days when India refused to side with the US and insisted on a non-aligned posture. The global fawning of terrorist networks and the two country's bitter experience with terrorism not only brought the countries together on defense and strategy related matters, it also ensured that the two countries would now collaborate on the technological frontier to make, as Modi said, "our seas, cyberspace and outer space" more secure.

As the imperatives of a globalised economy press hard on both India and the US, both countries are now actively seizing all opportunities to build a partnership based on common trade and technological interest. Thus, while US companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Google seek markets in India, the latter hopes that the "thriving" Indian-American community in the US will help in furthering India's economic interest abroad. Modi's diplomatic visits are, therefore, closely coupled with events, such as meetings with Indian CEOs of multi-national corporations, building bridges with prospering start-ups, while the prime minister constantly emphasised on how the Indian-American community can act as a metaphor for what the two countries are capable of achieving if they decide to nurture enterprise and reward hard work. 

The sheer number of Indian tech professionals in the US make them crucial in a bilateral relationship

Through the celebratory reference to enterprising Indians, Modi is understandably trying to press a case against the recent Trump administration's announcements over H1B visas. Indians constitute the highest number of H1B visa holder in the USA, numbering somewhere around 1,26,692 in 2016. A significant majority of these visa holders are engineers, more particularly IT professionals. Companies in the US need their expertise which is available at a much cheaper rate than an American or European professional. The sheer number of Indian tech professionals in the US make them crucial in a bilateral relationship. This is evident from the eagerness Modi has shown showcasing India's strength in information technology to claim a position of leadership in what he sees to be the digital age. 

The future of the bilateral relationship between the two countries now seems to be grounded on the power of emerging technologies, new infrastructure, and the "enthusiasm and excitement of very hardworking and very dynamic people." What we are witnessing in the international arena is actually reflective of how India is changing domestically. The Modi government's mantra has become better governance that balances political openness with goal-oriented technocracy. While the level of political openness in India is still a debatable issue, the present regime has shown unwavering commitment to develop India along the technocratic path where the quality of governance matters more than regime type.

"There is a high tide of hope for change in India" Prime Minister Narendra Modi boldly proclaimed to the world on the eve of his meeting with President Donald Trump. Clearly, as India emerges as a leading economic power in the global circuit, much in India is changing. The process of democratisation, howsoever fraught, is giving away to a pursuit to build an effective technocratic government in India. Such a government is interested more in "good governance" and less in politics. Instead of carrying forward the Nehruvian ideal of a democratic socialist state as India's answer to underdevelopment, Narendra Modi believes in the endless "possibilities of technology and innovation" to solve the national problems.

Technocratic regimes, like the one PM Modi, is trying to build, carry an assurance of certainty. It promises to deliver what the citizens universally proclaim they want: world-class infrastructure, affordable health care, sanitation, electricity, connectivity, and housing. Modi's mantra of "minimum government, maximum governance" seeks to achieve its promised goals of transparent governance and economic development without politicising the agendas. The American citizens, including a large number of Indian professionals and business personnel who are tired of red-tapeism of the previous regimes, are wholeheartedly embracing these new shifts in outlook. 

The business community in India and foreign investors are cosying up to the idea of India developing as a smart technocracy. They want national infrastructure in roads, railways and power, to which Modi has pledged nearly $200 billion in long-term funding. They need these to expand their business and don't care much that in the global South often this infrastructure building comes with serious problems of population displacement. For the level of technocratic governance India is hoping to achieve, such a regime will increasingly find mass politics disruptive. The very nature of mass politics is messy; it is incompatible with the technocratic mindset which prioritises rigour over haphazard democratic cycles.

The business community in India and foreign investors are cosying up to the idea of India developing as a smart technocracy

If democracy is messy and can, on occasions, act as a hindrance to developmental goals, bilateral relation often takes an unpredictable course. For instance, all the hopes pinned on making information technology an important component of bilateral relation can go unrealised if more Indian engineers, such as Srinivas Kuchibhotlas get killed in the US. Similarly, if the Trump administration does get away with imposing stricter control over the issuance of H1B visas, all the praise about hardworking Indian-American community may remain only as a rhetoric. 

Similarly, the high hopes of building a partnership in the energy sector can also encounter stumbling blocks, particularly because Trump in the recent past has taken a swing at India for taking boatloads of money in the name of climate change. With Qatar in crisis, India needs liquid natural gas (LNG) supply from the US. In the declaration after the summit, Trump did say that the US is "looking forward to exporting more American energy to India" but this will come with a price tag. The President has admitted that his government is "trying to get the price up a little bit." Trump's commitment to delivering LNG to India does not come from a commitment to build a clean environment. For him, it is a business proposition: more gas for more money and more jobs. The moment Trump feels any of this business deal is not what he calls to be "fair" and "reciprocal", the promises of working together will go unrealised. 

Thus, it is for time to tell if the friendship between the leaders will last the shifting dynamics of international relations and, more importantly, if at the implementation level, the two countries can find a compromise between "Make in India" and "Make America great". At the end of the day, no matter how hard a technocratic regime tries to deliver in the name of development, it always flounders in the treacherous rocks of democratic politics. 


Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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