Is President Donald J Trump going to be good or bad for India? I get asked this question very frequently these days—mostly, of course, by Indians.
The first thing to know is this: Trump has a number of immediate fires to put out right now—some of which he has started himself—but India is not one of them. Consider the issues on his desk in his first month in office. A cancelled visit by Mexico’s president; a worrying tiff with Beijing over Washington’s long-standing ‘One China’ policy; allegations that Moscow has dirt on him—something he denies; reports of a tense conversation with Australia’s PM; a petition in the UK against his upcoming state visit. Meanwhile, he’s waging a self-declared war against the press. He has faced controversy and protests over his executive order on immigration. He has endured scrutiny over his cabinet picks, his scuppering of the TPP deal, and his choice for Supreme Court Justice. Each day seems to bring new shocks and twists.
Did you see India on that list? No, India is simply not front-of-mind.
Even if some of Trump’s moves do impact Indians, such as the reports that he may curb work visas, it is important to remember that his decisions are not directed by India’s interests. Far from it. Trump is thinking ‘America First’. He is thinking about his constituency.
Indians shouldn’t see this as an affront.
As former US Ambassador to India Tim Roemer told me recently, India is currently one of the few issues that the polarised Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on. The US-India caucus is one of the largest of its kind in Congress, with bipartisan enthusiasm and support. Presidents George W Bush, Clinton, and Obama all strengthened relations with India. From the evidence of Trump’s official call with Indian PM Narendra Modi in January, one of his first few conversations with any foreign leader, POTUS #45 doesn’t seem to be changing course.
Consider the following: Trade between India and the US has grown five-fold in 12 years to $109 billion. They have greatly expanded cooperation and ties in defence, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, healthcare, and clean energy. People-to-people ties have grown. In 2016, more than a million people each from India and the US journeyed to the other country. 166,000 Indians are currently studying in the United States, adding diversity to the American college experience, while enriching the coffers of the world’s wealthiest university endowments.
In Trump-speak, this is not a bad deal—for either side. If it was, Trump would have likely criticised it on the campaign trail as one of the many things he wanted to fix. Instead, the little that Trump has said in public about India all seems to be positive. To use Trump adviser Peter Thiel’s now-famous description of how American voters see Trump, this fact is something Indians should take both literally and seriously: Trump sees his country’s friendship with India as a good deal.
But the friendship won’t run on auto-pilot.
First, when the time comes, Trump will need to make some effort over India. “Presidential involvement in a bilateral relationship is absolutely critical,” says Roemer, recounting to me how Obama charmed Modi on his first Washington visit by taking him to the Martin Luther King Memorial and spending some time with him, one-on-one. “That meant a lot to Modi,” says Roemer. “Trump will need to learn he has to invest time in building communication and trust—it doesn’t happen automatically.”
Second, there’s the issue of the H-1B visas. Of the 85,000 highly skilled visas offered every year, some 70% go to Indian professionals. While no bills or orders curtailing the visa program have actually been passed as of this writing, it is clear the looming threats have hurt the Indian tech industry, with billions of dollars in value lost on the stock market. Even as New Delhi has made its concerns clear to the White House, it is important to understand that Trump will do what will best please his constituents, many of whom fear an America with more immigration and competition. Yet Trump may prove to be a realist. An ageing United States needs young, hard-working immigrants to grow the economy, pay taxes, and maintain the country’s demographic profile. Trump will know how companies react to losing relatively cheap high-skilled labour; they will react as they always do, which is to go where the business and employees are best, even if that is outside America. As Nasscom’s R Chandrashekhar told CNN in January, curbing the H-1B program means “only two things can happen: either the work will remain undone or the job will shift out of the US” For all the short-term pain to many Indian students, workers, and families, India has no choice but to let this issue play out in the longer term. For better or worse, this is strictly business and politics—not personal.
There is one other way of looking at a potential curb on visas for Indians: as an opportunity. Delhi boy Kunal Bahl graduated from Wharton in 2007, and got a job with Microsoft in Seattle. He was denied a visa. Rejected and dejected, Bahl came home, and founded a small company we all know as Snapdeal. He employs 20,000 people today. In the long-run, ‘Make in India’ could well trump ‘America First’.
The author, Ravi Agrawal, is New-Delhi bureau chief, CNN International.