People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
American poet, singer and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wasn’t referring to the US elections when he sang those lines, but he just as easily could have. Ever since Donald Trump, riding on the wave of his America First campaign, took the oath of office as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017, things have changed.
The fact that he was an outsider to the Beltway, someone who refused to abide with tradition, and said and did what he felt like, probably endeared him to many. Who cared whether he groped women in his free time, or didn’t pay his taxes like a good citizen should?
“Who indeed?” a senior Indian diplomat asked me months after his inauguration. “Why should we in India care about the personal life of an American President? We are only interested in how he deals with us as a country.” Admitting that India was trying to adapt to the “transactional” and “highly unpredictable, mercurial” nature of the new man in the White House, he said that there were two things India would not do when it came to dealing with the US. “One, to join or appear to join any alliance, whether it’s led by the US or anyone else. Our strategic autonomy is sacrosanct, and always has been. And two, to be seen as a US-backed ‘counterweight’ to China in the region, because we are not in that game.” (This was of course, long before the recent dramatic degradation in Sino-Indian relations).
Trump began his innings by tearing up treaty after treaty, leaving both allies and enemies befuddled. NAFTA: Scrap it. Climate Change Talks: Who cares? Walk out and blame India and China for it. NATO: Why should we have to pay for their protection? The list is long.
Then came immigration and trade, two things that directly impact Indian businesses and students. And of course, all those eagerly jostling for a chance to permanently move to the “Land of the Free.” The continuing row over the H1-B visa, for instance, impacts Indian industry in various ways. And of course, immigration laws have become a whole lot tougher.
US tariffs were imposed on Indian steel and aluminium imports, and there was constant pressure to open up the Indian markets further, particularly the agriculture and dairy sectors, and removing the price caps on imported medical devices like stents and joint replacement parts. Then there are also differences over access to Indian data and its invasive privacy laws. In March 2019, The US revoked Generalized System of Preferences status, which essentially allows eligible developing countries to export duty-free goods to the United States.
In September 2019, Prime Minister Modi headed to the US for an event to highlight the power and influence of the Indian Diaspora. Perhaps overwhelmed by the presence of the massive crowd and the US president himself joining an event in Houston titled “Howdy Modi,” the Indian prime minister even went as far as to campaign for his “friend”, declaring “Abki bar, Trump Sarkar.”
And in February 2020, barely days before the Covid-19 pandemic was announced, and at a time when the capital was in the throes of some of the worst communal violence in recent years, Trump arrived in India on his first official visit. But despite the hype and optics, the main thrust of the visit, a much-promised trade agreement, never materialised.
But if trade and immigration were sore spots in the relationship, the uptick in strategic relations more than made up for it.
There’s already been three editions of the 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers/secretaries of the two nations, the last one held in New Delhi despite the pandemic in late October, just days before the US elections. During this meeting, India signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation, the last of the so-called Foundational agreements which the US has with its closest allies.
These agreements allow the transfer of very high-end military technologies and data among the signatories. Earlier, India was given a waiver on CAATSA, which essentially barred nations from buying weapons from Russia particularly the S-400 air defence system. Another temporary waiver allows India to use Iran’s Chabahar port and buy some LNG from it.
But more importantly, it is Trump’s position on Pakistan, and subsequently China, which has left mandarins in South Block feeling somewhat vindicated. One of the first things Trump did was to call out Pakistan’s perfidy, and slash aid to the terrorist swamp. Then it joined India in its bid to put economic pressure on Islamabad by using the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a terror financing watchdog, to put the squeeze on Islamabad.
When Pakistan ran to the IMF for aid, the US insisted that it divulge its outlay for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, something neither Beijing nor Pakistan was willing to share. India of course rejected Trump’s repeated desire to ‘mediate’ between the two nations. Similarly, China bristled when Trump offered to mediate following the border standoff with India. During the last 2+2, the strong words of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo blasting both China and Pakistan made both nations lodge indignant protests.
However, despite the renaming of the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command in an attempt to woo the Indian Navy into the stormy South China Sea, India has so far refused to bite.
So when the results of the US elections are announced in a few hours from now, even as Washington and New York pull down their shutters fearing violence, India --and most of the world-- knows one thing for sure. Regardless of who wins, it’ll never be the same.
For better or worse, things have changed.