[Burning Issue] Trump in India



Donald Trump’s visit to India continues a trend of more and more frequent visits by US Presidents. He is the first US President to visit India on a stand-alone visit in the seven decades of Indo-US diplomatic ties. US Presidents who came to India before him, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, all had other stops in the region.

Here’s how ties between the two countries have evolved, strengthening in key areas while some areas remain a concern.

Visits before 2000, and later

  • Between 1947 and 2000, the first 53 years of India-US ties, there were only three visits by US Presidents to India — Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, Richard Nixon in 1969 and Jimmy Carter in 1978.
  • In the 20 years since 2000, there have been four visits by three US Presidents — Bill Clinton in 2000, George W Bush in 2006, and Obama in 2010 and 2015. Trumps being the fifth.
  • While only three of the nine US Presidents during 1947-2000 visited India, every President in the last two decades has visited India at least once.

Many reasons could be ascribed to the higher frequency of visits — a shift in global geo-politics in the post-Cold War era, India’s economic ascent, rise of an assertive China, and New Delhi’s place on the global high table.

The beginning of Strategic Partnership

  • In 2003-04, the first seeds of the Next Steps of Strategic Partnership were sown during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime.
  • The relationship peaked with the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008, which was negotiated during 2005-08 between the Manmohan Singh government and the Bush administration, and is considered the game-changer.
  • The Obama administration carried forward the relationship, and during his visit in 2010 hosted by Singh, the US promised support to India for a UN Security Council membership.
  • When Narendra Modi became PM in 2014, Obama navigated the transition and visited again in 2015, when he was the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations.

Ties after Trump

  • After Trump came to power in 2016, there was a shift in the US political landscape as his unpredictability defined his presidency.
  • The Indian government moved fast, and Modi visited the White House in June 2017. It is in this backdrop that the visit is taking place in a year that will witness US presidential elections.

 Namaste Trump

Outcomes of the Visit

Despite years of high-level negotiations, India and the United States did not announce a trade deal—even a so-called mini-deal—despite Trump’s hinted during the visit that an “incredible” agreement was in the works.

President Trump’s visit can easily be cleaved into two separate parts:

  1. the symbolism of the joint rally with PM Modi, along with their obvious personal rapport, and
  2. the actual bilateral outcomes of their Delhi meeting
  • The visit’s concrete outcomes were not as dramatic or historical as the rally images were.
  • Although the External Affairs Ministry had said at least five MoUs would be ready for signing, the three made ready were two on health care, and one Letter of Cooperation on LNG pipeline infrastructure.
  • The agreement signed for defence purchases worth $3-billion, including American helicopters, has led to both sides signalling more cooperation in defence, military exercises and technology sharing.

Disagreements over the price of apples, walnuts, and medical devices; the US’s demands for greater access to India’s dairy, poultry and e-commerce market; and ongoing discussions over lowering Indian tariffs on American-made Harley Davidson motorcycles, remain unresolved.

A “new designation” to the bilateral ties:

Comprehensive Strategic Global Partnership

  • Giving concrete shape to an India-US ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ was the biggest achievement of Trump’s visit which was otherwise high on optics and low on substance.
  • The CGSP was initiated in 2013 when PM Manmohan Singh had visited the US and met President Barack Obama.
  • The two leaders had then claimed that the India-US relationship has developed a “comprehensive global strategic partnership”.
  • In a joint statement, both nations vowed to strengthen India-US CGSP, anchored in mutual trust, shared interests, goodwill and robust engagement of their citizens.

Core of the extravaganza

Why US matters for India?

1) Support against terrorism

  • This intense engagement has helped achieve robust support from the US against terrorism.
  • This was evident after the Pulwama attack last year, leading to designation of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under UN Security Council Resolution 1267, and the placing of Pakistan on the grey-list of the FATF.
  • While Trump was once very critical on Pakistan, he has nuanced his position on Pakistan in the last seven months.
  • And now, with a deal between the US and the Taliban likely, his approach towards Pakistan, long-time benefactor of the Taliban, will be tested in the months to come.

2) Defence

  • For India, its relationship with the US on defence issues has strengthened.
  • India has procured over $18 billion worth of defence items from the US, almost half of this in the last five years.
  • India conducts more bilateral exercises with the US than with any other country.
  • And, under Trump, the announcement of India’s elevation to Tier I of the Strategic Trade Authorization licence exception has opened up US defence technologies from the time when India faced a technology-denial regime.

3) Energy

  • The other area where the relationship has grown in recent years is energy.
  • The bilateral Strategic Energy Partnership was launched in April 2018; India has started importing crude and LNG from the US from 2017 and 2018 respectively.
  • The total imports are estimated at $6.7 billion — having grown from zero.
  • The US is also India’s sixth largest source of crude oil imports, with hydrocarbon imports rising to $7 billion in the last two years.

4) Trade

  • In the backdrop of the global economic slowdown, where India’s global exports have fallen consistently, it is important for the country to diversify and strengthen bilateral relations with other markets.
  • It has set its sights on “large developed markets”, improved access to which would help its industry and services sectors.
  • These include the US, which has, over the last two decades, become a crucial trading partner in terms of both goods and services.

Why India matters to the US?

1) India as an open data market

  • India is, after all, the largest open data market in the universe. Per capita, more data is consumed in India than anywhere else in the world.
  • For American “big tech” firms, India provides a scale for their products unavailable in any other country.
  • Despite current economic woes, this will continue to be the largest growing and relatively open consumer market for American products and business.

2) Indian-Americans

  • About 4.5 million people of Indian origin live in the US today, but despite their relatively small numbers, Indian Americans are a growing political force in the country.
  • Trump has sought to court the Indian-American vote in the run-up to the 2020 election.

3) India as a defence partner

  • India is also a large arms importer.
  • Defence trade is widely seen as the silver lining in this relationship – US-India defence deals have ballooned in the past decade, from nearly zero in 2008 to a little more than $15bn in 2019.

4) India as a possible solution to China’s hegemony

  • On the trade front, India can be an effective supplier rather than being an outsourcing hub if compared to China.
  • Strategically also, the U.S. views India as a platform to contain China’s hegemony.
  • India sees it as an opportunity for economic expansion, with the U.S. being an equal partner.

Areas of contention

Tariff issues

  • The US feels that India is a high tariff country, and wants these reduced and a more predictable regime to conduct business.
  • Although the growth is 10% per year, many feel the potential is much higher.

Visa norms

  • The other area of contention has been the movement of Indian skilled professionals to the US under the H1B programme.
  • While the US President has always made immigration a key campaign theme, it has not led to any major barriers for Indians so far. But in an election year in the US, the rhetoric could sharpen.


  • India needs to keep US on its side for strategic and security reasons – the grand welcome India accorded the US president showed how serious it is about the relationship.
  • But the immediate future of the relationship depends on the upcoming US presidential elections.
  • These are relationship-building visits that serve as signalling mechanisms too.
  • If India-US relationship is a defining one for this century, as Modi said, Trump’s visit helps in that definition.
  • India will find it easier to deal with a leader it has already invested in, hoping Trump’s unpredictable nature won’t harm the relationship.

Way Forward

  • Although any major trade package deal could not be clinched this time, in terms of emboldening the bilateral ties, this visit was critical.
  • The fact that President Trump did visit India and understand the imperatives is in itself a big achievement, considering his unpredictable nature.
  • It is also true that these visits are never about massive deliverables. These visits create an impression.
  • As many regards, the thinking beyond transactionalism in this event was a big achievement for both.
  • Having a trade deal becomes an uphill task with both sides taking a protectionist stance.
  • The two governments must now strive to complete the unfinished agreements and set the course for their newly designated ‘Comprehensive Strategic Global Partnership’.





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