NEW DELHI: Prime Minster Narendra Modi on Friday greeted President Pranab Mukherjee on his 80th…
For a people as self-obsessed as Indians, Donald Trump’s praise for Narendra Modi has not come as a surprise. Because the Modi government’s parallel foreign policy machine in the prime minister’s party has successfully fostered the illusion that India is the pivot on which the entire world now revolves on matters of diplomacy – with help from some television channels which have unquestioningly swallowed this line – it has not bothered Indians very much that judging by Trump’s standards, their prime minister is in bad company.
For the Republican Party’s front runner for the presidency of the United States of America, the few foreign leaders who meet his yardsticks for approval include North Korea’s bloodthirsty dictator Kim Jong-un. That Vladimir Putin has been described by Trump as “highly respected” does not mitigate Modi’s predicament because it was the Russian leader who first praised Trump as “bright” and “talented.”
For an ultimately vain man like Trump, praise from someone of Putin’s standing, although cleverly crafted, must have been like balm. Europeans, who are closest to the Americans in state-to-state relations, think of this US presidential aspirant as nothing short of crazy and far too erratic to be ever considered for occupancy of the White House. As an example of European disdain for Trump, recall the January debate in Britain’s Parliament where members variously described the billionaire American real estate mogul as a “buffoon” and as “poisonous.” He was even colourfully called a “wazzock,” slang for stupid.
Trump’s approval of Putin is, therefore, an instance of grateful reciprocity from someone craving for political acceptance overseas. All the same, Trump’s praise for Modi is not a case of happenstance. It is the natural progression of an organic alliance which has been slowly but surely developing in the last two and a half decades between those who control the levers of power in both India and the US.
It is often overlooked in scholarly analysis of the history of Indo-US relations that one of the primary reasons for the diplomatic distance and ideological divergence between Washington and New Delhi in the first nearly half century of India’s independence has been the contrasting ways in which power is exercised in the two capitals.
Since World War II, much more than at any time in America’s history, big corporations have controlled power in Washington. Apart from the military-industrial complex, which became so powerful during this period that a president could ignore it only at his peril, fund-raisers, where only the wealthy matter, are integral to the US political process.
In January 2010, the US Supreme Court gave its final seal of approval to a system which allowed the wealthiest individuals to bid for political influence. Judgment in a case known as ” Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission” gave the green light to unlimited corporate spending on elections through political organizations funded by rich individuals. In April 2014, the Supreme Court expanded on its 2010 decision in another case –McCutcheon vs FEC – this time by striking down limits by individual donors to political action committees, that is, groups that mainly campaign for candidates of a certain ideological persuasion.
These decisions legalized what has been the factual situation in US elections for a long time: American politicians are beholden to big bucks in order to survive.
In India, realpolitik had entirely different mooring in the first five decades since Independence. Unlike in America, political power in India flowed out of the strength of the dispossessed. During the long years of Jawaharlal Nehru’s and Indira Gandhi’s socialism, leaders gained electoral acceptability riding on the backs of trade unions, farmer’s organizations and the landless poor. On a parallel track, the minorities, backward castes, Dalits and tribals became sources of political power.
Until P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh initiated economic liberalization and gave political respectability to the wealthy and the owners of capital, the idea that India and the US shared values such as democracy barely found its place in any public discourse. If at all, such declarations were nothing more than lip service. There was little in common between the political class in India and the one in the US. Even the Indian political elite of that period looked to the United Kingdom for inspiration, not across the Atlantic.
It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who declared, two years into his prime ministership, that India and the US were “natural allies.” It took another three years and a president who is often ridiculed for his lack of intellectual prowess – George W. Bush – to grasp the significance of the first Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister’s profound declaration and accept it. In New Delhi, Vajpayee’s idea of a natural alliance with Washington was dismissed as a mere slogan.
However, the profile of the 13th Lok Sabha of which Vajpayee was the House leader, told another story. It had an unprecedented number of members of parliament who had graduated from American universities, not Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick or Exeter. Vajpayee wanted to send the executive head of an industry organization with excellent connections in Washington as his ambassador to the US in acknowledgement of changes in the ownership of India’s policy towards America. But he was thwarted by the bureaucracy, including his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, whose loyalty was to the Indian Foreign Service, to which he belonged.
By the time Modi was sworn in as prime minister, India’s political landscape had become more approximate than ever before to that of America. Trade unions and kisan movements rarely shape political careers any more in India. Corporate-owned aircraft of the Gulfstream variety are now part of the campaign tools of several political parties, sadly, without the checks attached to their use under law or ethical considerations in the US. Corporate ownership of the media, as in the US, is a factor that cannot be overlooked in India’s political battles any more.
When Trump asserts that “India is doing great,” what he means is that there are a large number of Indians now in all walks of life, including politics, with whom he is comfortable. For someone like Trump – and many Americans of his ilk – these are PLU: “people like us.” Three or four decades ago Indians who filled those slots were by instinct and temperament PLT: “people like them.”
Since Trump is very much in a zone of opaqueness for a public figure, one can only assume that his views on India and his impressions about Modi have been formed by talking to fellow businessmen and not to analysts or India experts on the American capital’s Beltway, like Ashley J. Tellis who have helped shape candidate attitudes to South Asia during previous Republican campaigns for the White House.
Many Americans who have dealings with India, cutting across political loyalties, had hoped that with Modi’s victory in May 2014, there would be evolution towards a two-party State seeing off the instabilities resulting from having to deal with one-man – or one woman – political parties or one family-led state governments. They are disappointed that there is a resurgence of such parties after their brief eclipse two years ago.
There was also hope that economic development, job creation and growth would replace caste as the mantra on the streets. Haryana, which calls attention in many corporate board rooms from Manhattan to Silicon Valley because of American stakes in Gurgaon, today stands as testimony to such hopes which have been belied.
If Trump becomes president and assuming that he pipes down and embraces the element of responsibility that comes with the most powerful job in the world, he will not have patience with the way India engages the world. That is when many Indians who have been made to believe by the BJP’s spin doctors in the last 21 months that their country is the pivot of global diplomacy will be in for a rude shock.
With Hillary Clinton, it may be much smoother sailing. She and her husband Bill know India after all and above all they know how to handle India and Indians very well.