With President Trump, Will India Be ‘Great Again’ Too?

What making America great again will mean for India depends partly on India, argues Raj Bhala.

5 min read
With President Trump, Will India Be ‘Great Again’ Too?

The answer is “no,” with one exception and one qualification.

Secretary Clinton’s campaign motto of “Stronger Together” contrasted with Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” in a subtle but important way that mattered for India: She never built a wall around the word “together,” whereas he repeatedly rejected an “all are welcome” message.

Indians know well the ways to live in close quarters amidst diverse ethnicities, faiths, languages, and cultures, and the dangers, even violence, which follow when they depart from the Gandhian legacy of tolerance. Her inclusive paradigm reassured Indians she would not toss them into his “basket of deplorables” (to call up an unfortunate Clintonian hustings epithet). He gave Indians no such comfort.

President Trump is not a cautious pragmatist. He is an impulsive eclectic. Indians could hope for quick, radical change in America’s visa policies, thanks to his business sense of the need to plug gaps in the labour supply to Silicon Valley. Or, they could decry his failure to differentiate them from all other prospective immigrants. Who knows? What is clear is that on three of four topics of vital importance to the sub-continent, Trumpian greatness for America will run counter to India’s best interests.

Donald Trump speaks during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

First, Iran. President Trump plans to renege on the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Even if Iran were to comply with this nuclear deal, Indian exporters and importers, and foreign direct and portfolio investors, cannot look forward to the gradual removal of secondary boycott sanctions that have made it difficult for them to do business with Iran.

Since at least Moghul times, India and Persia have been natural cultural friends. Their modern comparative advantages are complementary: India needs Iranian oil and natural gas, and Iran needs an array of Indian goods, from textiles and apparel to generic pharmaceuticals. Indeed, flourishing Indo-Iranian business ties, and a new triangle trade involving the United States, would reinforce a possible American tilt away from Saudi Arabia. But, none of that would make Trump’s America great again.

Second, the environment. President Trump will not continue the work of his predecessor to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions that choke urban Indians in centres like Delhi. He will not stick with the December 2015 Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which both India and America are parties.

That means the United States will not do its part to mitigate greenhouse gasses, and finance clean energy technologies. More generally, his Presidency will not see environmental threats as existential to Indians and Americans alike.

Third, women. As First Lady, Secretary Clinton famously declared in September 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” This equation not only challenged the degradation women suffer through the one- (now two-) child policy of the Chinese Communist Party, but also backward cultural offences like dowry murders.

The equation is pragmatic: Like many post-Partition Indian leaders, Secretary Clinton appreciated the vital role women play in economic transformation from dependence on agriculture, through industrialisation, to high value-added service sectors. But, she knew human dignity is the most important logic underlying the equation, which means the equation applies to the LGBTQ community, too.

An attendee holds a “Women For Trump” sign during an election night party for US President-Elect Donald Trump at the Hilton Midtown hotel in New York, US. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

In contrast, assaults on human dignity figured prominently in the Trump campaign, as did his choice of words and dubious deeds toward women, who were useful to the economy in beauty contests for as long as they stayed slim. No Indian who believes every person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, is unique, unrepeatable, and priceless, can feel solidarity with President Trump. In his calculus, the equation applies neither to America nor India.

So what is the good news from President Trump for India? It is about Pakistan. President Trump has consistently burnished bold rhetoric against “radical Islamic terrorism.” He sees India as a natural comrade in arms. He knows it was in Abbottobad where the Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

He also knows that in November 2008, terrorists with training in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir arrived in Colaba. President Trump will have no interest in resurrecting a Nixonian Cold War American alliance with Pakistan, but rather will look askance at Sino-Pak ties.

If they create jobs and incomes for Pakistanis, and thereby cut the numbers of marginalised Pakistanis vulnerable to the false romance of extremist ideological recruitment, then so much the better. If they exacerbate poverty and inequality in Pakistan and blithely veil radicalisation, then he will champion stronger links with New Delhi vis-à-vis Islamabad and Beijing.

Finally, what is the qualification? What making America great again will mean for India depends partly on India. India is not a passive player on the global stage, sitting at the mercy of decisions emanating from Trump Tower. Across the last half century, and especially since 1991, India has cleansed itself of most of the structural distortions of colonialism and Nehruvian socialism and forged its own identity in international economic relations. Too often, though, India says “no” in trade negotiations in defence of vested agrarian or legacy industrial interests, without offering meaningful constructive alternatives. The challenge for India will be to change its reputation from problem generator to problem solver.

Signage stands outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino and hotel, owned by Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

In 1990, Donald Trump opened an ostentatious Taj Mahal 7,516 miles away from Agra, to gamble! Its bankruptcy and closure (ironically after Labor Day 2016) proved his billion-dollar bet did not pay off.

Thanks to an invitation to Hillary Clinton from Saint (Mother) Teresa to visit impoverished children in India, in March 1995, the First Lady saw first-hand the cherished symbols of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism that Shah Jahan embedded in the Taj Mahal. If India plays its cards right, then India will host the new President at the authentic Crown Palace. Only a fool gazing at it would fail to see why India always has been great.


(The article was originally published on BloombergQuint.)

(Raj Bhala is Associate Dean, International and Comparative Law, and Rice Distinguished Professor at The University of Kansas, School of Law.)

(The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of The Quint or its editorial team.)

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