Why India worries about America’s future choices

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That someone like Donald Trump has come so close to getting into the Oval Office has rekindled concerns in India about the dependability of the United States as a security partner. The past few years have seen a considerable deepening of Indo-US relations in the military and strategic sphere. But Trump – and the sense that his surprising political rise marks a further breakdown of the US postwar foreign policy consensus – has put some questions on this nascent bond.

When the US presidential election campaign began last year, New Delhi was sanguine about the expected results. On the Democratic side, the Hillary Clinton team included many individuals with a long record of support for closer Indo-US relations. On the Republican side, most of the mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had foreign policy advisors who were also known entities for New Delhi.

After a few years of doubt due to the isolationist tendencies evident during the early years of the Barack Obama administrations, Indo-US relations had been restored to health with the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi and Obama were to develop a close political relationship, one that has seen them meet eight times in just three years – a record for US and Indian leaders. The assumption in New Delhi was that the next US president was almost certain to continue where Obama had left off.

As Trump moved to successfully secure the Republican nomination, a surprised and shocked Indian establishment echoed similar sentiments across the world. Some commentators found a bit of solace in Trump’s generally positive views about India. Early in 2016, Trump declared that India had become a “top place” for investment following Modi’s election, spoke of India “doing great” economically and expressed surprise that more people weren’t talking about the country’s 7%-plus economic growth rate. This seems to have been strongly motivated by the fact that two luxury buildings are being constructed in the Indian cities of Mumbai and Pune by Indian real estate developers but under the Trump franchise name.

Others took pleasure in his derogatory comments about Pakistan, India’s regional rival. “Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the world today. The only country that can check Pakistan is India,” Trump said during a radio show in September of last year. This was matched by his talk of a trade war against China and the need for the US to be more aggressive economically against Beijing. Occasionally, Trump also spoke in a similar, if less angry manner about India and the problem of outsourced jobs. He had at least once mimicked an Indian accent to amuse an electoral rally.

However, the Republican candidate’s more visceral attacks against Islam in general and his call for a stronger military response to the Islamic State and similar terrorist groups did excite right-wing Hindu groups. In May, a small fringe group called the Hindu Sena (“Hindu Army”) held a religious festival on the streets of central Delhi in favor of Trump. One of the activists declared, “He’s the only man who can put an end to Islamic terrorism”. This received considerable global media attention. More tangibly, however, was the response of conservative Hindu groups in the US. Shalabh Kumar, a Chicago businessman of Indian origin, donated nearly $900,000 to the Trump campaign because of the strength of his comments about the threat posed by Islam. Kumar, after meeting the candidate, said that Trump had indicated “that the 21st century should be an Indo-American century.”

But these were minority opinions. A Pew Research Center survey in the spring of this year found that Trump received only a 14% approval rating among Indians, though the poll also showed that more than 60% of Indians had no opinion of him at all. By most estimates, 70 to 80% of Indian-Americans will continue to vote for the Democratic Party as they traditionally have.

Of greater concern to New Delhi, however, was what Trump represented in terms of US foreign policy. India’s strategic community believes that Obama’s unwillingness to wield US influence and power in troubled regions of the world encouraged China to lay claim to the South China Sea and provided a lifeline to the Islamic State. Obama started to reverse his earlier isolationism in the last two years of his presidency. In Trump, however, they see an advocate of an even greater “America First” policy, almost going back to pre-World War I isolationism. Trump has spoken of abandoning NATO. In New Delhi’s view this would largely redound in favor of China, the Taliban and Islamic militancy in general.

Trump is also seen as damaging to a carefully constructed partnership between the two countries on climate change under which US financing and technology would help an ambitious Indian renewable energy push. Trump has denounced climate change as a fraud.

There is no shortage of concern regarding exactly what a Trump presidency would mean in terms of US engagement with the rest of the world. But for New Delhi, the most fundamental question is whether Trump (even if he loses) represents the disintegration of a US internationalist posture that has been the backbone of a world order that India was beginning to engage with. If so, then the nature of New Delhi’s foreign and defense policy would require a reorientation that, at the very least, would include a far smaller role for the US and the West in general.