This has to be said upfront. For their economic and military interests, the democratic world wants India to succeed. These interests include our markets, our maritime routes, our strategic geography (read China), India’s technical expertise in some areas, but, above all, our capacity to vote in new lawmakers every five years. However faulty and rickety, our young democracy offers a safety net for nations much older and certainly more powerful than us in a coveted part of the world. Let that sink in.
Welcome to two days of roller coaster rides as United States (US) President Donald Trump travels to India for his first visit where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waits for him with a mega-event a huge stadium in Gujarat. Indians love entertainment, flashing lights and loudspeakers as much as Americans do. Stuck between the pomp and pageantry and security issues (the Indian sub-continent is a very dangerous place), expect to be lectured and even scolded. President Trump has stopped short of insulting just about every leader in the world.
President Trump makes no bones about liking Modi rushing always to add that India has not been good to America. Nothing new here - big western economic and military powers constantly tell the rest of the world to behave. Like or dislike Modi, he has managed to get Trump to travel to India in a campaign year. That is no small achievement. Namaste Trump. We know Americans love straight talk and another day another dollar is not an idle quip which once embraced difference and diversity like no other country. Indians, on the other hand, are all about labyrinths and pahelis, reading between lines that often trump seasoned hands even when such actions are self-defeating. That to me will be our first obstacle.
At a time when Indian media and commentators what Trump brings here’s my second question for us and myself. Without being bombastic or servile, we have to ask ourselves what we expect from ourselves in India as we seek to become a $5trillion economy in the coming years and $10trillion by 2032?
Post world war strategies and platforms, conferences and commissions have self-destructed, weighed down by their own contradictions that have run the course of logic and money. As multilateral forums collapse and bilateral action between countries take center stage, meantime is the new long time- a shift few leaders seem to grasp.
If Trump had his way, he’d convert India into a back office for banking and financial services and a conveyor belt for American goods and products. Issues that are reportedly on the cards during this visit are medical products, intellectual property, and space research and trade facilitation. Some of this sounds like a post office. The US Trade Representative (USTR) is reportedly not on that plane heading to India but the Trump dynasty is in tow.
How India navigates this meeting will have signals about how we want to protect our own markets. I expect no big moves for us, television debates notwithstanding. Not yet. I will be looking for frames because in the framing is the ambition not just for us as a country but also as an antidote to ward off other countries who may wish to piggy-back on Washington to come in through the back door. Personal equations between leaders have never been more important than it is now – Howdy Modi may not have led to immediate conversion in terms of contracts, but neither does the first few years at 50-year old Davos. That Houston event was, in my view, a salute to Indians who have made America their home and contributed to its success.
As an Indian, I hope Namaste Trump will be a salute to Indians who want their place in the sun. India has set itself the target of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2025. “The US economy…at $20.9 trillion is more than eight times India’s size is expected to grow by 2.4 per cent adding about $500 billion to its GDP in 2019…To put this number in perspective, what the US will add in 2019 will be more than 16 per cent of India’s GDP, illustrating the country’s economic dynamism and technical innovation,” writes Gautam Chikermane, Vice President, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and lead author of this paper. Read here.
Trump’s quest for a Nobel is still on. In his worldview Kashmir, Afghanistan and Pakistan are moving parts in that equation and while most Indians think that is none of his business, there are others who think it is and all views count in a democracy. Expect some action here.
It is my considered view that most Indians are least influenced by a handful of experts hyperventilating about India’s wrongs. There’s plenty that is wrong with us and in one way it is a healthy sign that people are pointing it out not just in India but also in the international media. Nations are not built in newsrooms of other countries.
We are a poor country. Our families are largely poor and live in villages and towns. Like all families who receive important guests, we want to put our best foot forward. This means parking the scooter in the drawing-room next to the refrigerator, a sofa set and center table (laden with food) neatly arranged in front of the television covered with a cloth to protect it from dust. Sometimes there’s a computer neatly arranged on a table next to a sound system. This is to impress the guest, the atithi.
The room separating the drawing-room to the next one is often separated by short curtains, (read wall) behind which stand many feet, shuffling to get a peek at the guests, angry and hungry at being thrown out of the party. The preceding lines are a metaphor for who we are. Namaste India. I am appalled to see how the very privileged and talkative loath themselves to the extent that they have turned it into a business. This has prompted the anti-loathers to jump in on the other side pretending to speak for India. They don’t.
India is not happening in Delhi. It is moving, growing, searching and seeking elsewhere and jobs will have to be the first answer. Namaste Trump is a weave in that direction. The momentum generated in the stadium will have to keep up by us, the people of India will have to make that happen. Trump comes looking for jobs and growth for his country. So should we, India, feet firmly on the ground.