Behind the bear hug, one wonders, whether there were moves to outfox each other. By the looks of it, the awkward embrace between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Donald Trump underlined India’s endorsement of US hegemony and its willingness to be part of the US hegemonic designs, especially in Asia.
It was also a hug that sealed a partnership between two likeminded supremacists, who seem to harbour hatred towards minorities and who seem to count on populism to stay on in power. In the United States, Trump, perhaps, sending a signal to his white supremacist supporters broke with a 20-year tradition and did not host the traditional Iftar dinner during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In India, sending a message of support to Hindu extremists, Modi’s Bharatiya Janatha Party ministers boycotted the Iftar ceremony hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee. With the two leaders sharing such negative values, no wonder Modi became the first world leader to have dinner with Trump at the White House.
It is nothing but baloney when they claimed during their joint news conference on Monday that the friendship between the United States and India was built on shared values and shared commitment to democracy. Democracies protect minority rights and uphold a secular order. In the two countries, events indicate that key democratic values have been observed more in the breach.
While Trump through executive orders institutionalises discriminatory practices such as the travel ban on Muslims and turns a blind eye to attacks on Muslims, Modi’s BJP has given a freehand to its hardline supporters to lynch Muslims in India. While Modi’s Hindutva supporters or Gau Rakshas (cow protectors) kill Muslims for eating beef, the Indian Prime Minister showed no signs of nausea when he hugged Trump, a beef eater who loves his steaks. Trump is the leader of the world’s number one beef-eating country. In a year, the Americans consume more than 25 billion pounds (or 11.3 billion kilograms) of beef. They slaughter more than 83 million cattle, including 23 million cows, a year. Hope cow vigilantes will take note of this.
Implied or explicit state patronage for violence against minorities is not democracy. But in realpolitik, values have little place. From 2005 to 2014, the United States denied a visa to Modi for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat while he was the chief minister of that state. When Modi became the prime minister, the Barack Obama administration dumped human rights concerns into dustbin and lifted the restriction. This week’s visit was Modi’s fifth to the US.
Far from improving democracy, Modi’s meeting with Trump centred mainly on security cooperation and business.
India may feel it has every reason to describe the Modi visit as a major diplomatic victory because for the first time the United States had a tough message for India’s archrival Pakistan and for the first time India found in the White House a president who does not mince his words to deal with the so-called Islamic terror.
The White House warned Pakistan not to allow its territory to be used by groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba as a launch pad for terrorist attacks on other countries. A White House statement urged Pakistan to “expeditiously bring to justice” those behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and last year’s attack on an Indian air base in Pathankot. Making India further happy, the US has also labelled Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Salahuddin a “specially designated global terrorist”.
But these words could be mere rhetoric. Reality could be different, because Washington can ill afford to antagonise Pakistan in view of the US war in Afghanistan. The Trump administration has no intention to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. It has, on the contrary, decided to increase the US military presence there to monitor Central Asia and counter-balance China’s westward economic expansion through its Belt and Road Initiative. Washington is unlikely to take any punitive measures against Pakistan simply to please India. Such action, the US knows, will only push Islamabad further into
Besides, there is little consistency in Trump’s policies. It was only last month, Trump accused India of profiting from the Paris climate deal. And this week, he allows himself for a Modi hug and spoke nothing about climate. Trump described Qatar as a terrorist supporter but within days found Qatar as a worthy partner to enter into a US$ 12 billion fighter jet deal. Trump may find, much to India’s disappointment, Pakistan as a crucial player in US plans for the region. United States Defence Secretary James Mattis, at his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Forces Committee early this year, underlined the need to stay engaged with Pakistan while offering more incentives to that country to
India, in return for the orders for 100 passenger aircraft, 22 drones and many other expensive deals that made Trump happy, wants the US to back its stance on Pakistan and Kashmir and New Delhi’s attempt to get a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council and membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Although Washington wants India to emerge as a bulwark to check China, the US support towards India’s needs has not been up to expectations. Yet, the Modi Government, it appears, is more than happy to do the US bidding. In recent years, India has increased defence contacts with the US and signed an agreement allowing the navies of both countries to use each other’s ports. Also New Delhi appears to be keen on forming a trilateral defence alliance with the US and Japan.
During Monday’s White House news conference, Modi said: “The strengthening of India’s defence capabilities, with the help of the United States, is something that we truly appreciate. We have also decided to enhance maritime security cooperation between the two nations.”
India, which is no more a champion of non-alignment and third world causes, perhaps, is making a mistake by aligning itself with the United States and portraying itself as a China’s military rival or Washington’s hitman. While military rivalry leads to a rise in defence expenditure and threatens the economic wellbeing of more than 1.5 billion people in India, close trade relations with China give rise to interdependency and, through it, peace and prosperity.
India’s future lies not in any defence alliance with the US, but in giving leadership to an Asia-centred economic bloc, including China, Japan and other Asian giants. It needs to review its opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By joining the BRI, India can not only prosper but also check China’s geopolitical ambitions, if it has any.