Could Modi gain much in US with bear hugs?


US president Donald Trump with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi in Washington, DC. Shawn Thew / EPA

Did the relationship between the United States and India change ever so subtly as a result of president Donald Trump’s interaction with prime minister Narendra Modi earlier this week?

Their cheerleaders obviously say yes to that and claim that the outlook is indeed sunnier, but a slightly more reliable way to judge may be the trivia that emerged from the meeting.

It had little backchannel detail, that momentous minutiae of the countdown to a crucial deal or a key last-minute shift in geopolitical gears.

Instead, the froth bubbled up mainly around Mr Modi’s trademark bear hug. The Indian prime minister, an experienced and indefatigable hugger, apparently managed to reel in the US president three times over the course of just a few hours at the White House.

Even authoritative and traditional media outlets were subsequently reduced to idle speculation. In choosing to hug, they wondered, had Mr Modi trumped a president known for his strongman clasp-and-yank handshake with world leaders?

The mind boggles, but there you have it. The leaders of the world’s oldest democracy and that of the largest, the world’s richest country and the fastest growing economy, meet one warm Washington Monday night and trigger great debate over…the value of hugs vs handshakes.

I exaggerate, but not overly. The meeting, pre-emptively advertised as “no-frills”, mostly lived up to its billing unless one counts the bright yellow crepe Emilio Pucci gown worn by Melania Trump. It is worth noting that newly complicated aspects of the US-India relationship were not publicly mentioned, raising doubts about the authenticity of the on-camera rapport between the hugger and his target.

Indeed, it says something that Mr Modi was publicly silent on the three issues that have become worryingly important to the bilateral relationship since Mr Trump’s election. First, the testy matter of the Trump administration’s ongoing review of the skilled-worker visa programme. Hundreds of thousands of Indian techies routinely apply for and receive these H-1B visas every year and Indian companies will be disproportionately hit by a cutback.

Second, climate change. Mr Trump falsely claimed just a few weeks ago that India had made participation in the Paris climate accord contingent upon “billions and billions and billions” of foreign aid. But the Indian prime minister did not raise the matter at all, neither draw upon the eco-friendly guidance offered by sacred Hindu text the Bhagvad Gita, nor on the secular doctrine of shared environmental responsibility. He did not also mention the need to collectively phase out hydrofluorocarbons and dirty coal.

Third, Mr Trump’s blunt stated demand for a “fair and reciprocal” trading relationship, which is to say the removal of barriers to the export of US goods into the Indian market. Mr Modi did not offer the only honest defence, namely that poorer countries, just like everyone else, have the right and the responsibility to open their economies at a judicious pace.

Even so, the Indians did manage to make their voice heard in the joint statement issued after the confabulations. The document spoke of responsible stewardship of the “Indo-Pacific region”, a noteworthy change from “Asia-Pacific”, which is more soothing for China. It “called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”, something India has long wanted the US president to put in writing. And it mentioned the US decision to sell India nearly two-dozen Guardian drones, the first such American transaction with a non-Nato ally.

So where does this leave the US-India relationship? On balance, in pretty much the same place as before Mr Modi set about hugging Mr Trump. For the better part of 20 years, successive US administrations have sought to work with India as a hedge against Chinese dominance of Asia and with increasing awareness of the need to de-hyphenate it from Pakistan. That the Trump White House appears to be plodding down that road is hardly a surprise. What is more interesting is the caution displayed by Mr Modi’s government about pledging its troth to the new US administration. The Indian prime minister has not rushed to visit Mr Trump. Earlier this month, India joined the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in a sign it is minded to pursue a dual-track policy that involves hedging its bets.

Some of this is realpolitik. After all, India and China are neighbours, a geographic reality that will never change whatever the transient US view of the world and of Beijing. And then there is the matter of Indian public opinion of Mr Trump and the America he leads.

Though surveys never do capture the mood of the Indian hinterland, it is striking that a new international poll of public confidence in Mr Trump found India unimpressed. Indian confidence in president Trump’s ability to do the right thing in world affairs dropped 18 points compared with president Obama, according to the Pew Research Centre survey.

In this context, Mr Modi’s hugs might be read rather in the spirit of Fredrick the Great’s canny comment on the necessary divergence between a leader and those he leads: “My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfied us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”