When US President Donald Trump launches his highly anticipated first visit to India on 24 February, the thousands of spectators waiting for Air Force One in Ahmedabad will have little reason to suspect the serious political risks that he carries with him.
US politics is growing ever more polarised. Trump will be making his first trip overseas since his impeachment trial ended in acquittal. Every interaction with the controversial president entails intense scrutiny. At the moment, the best way for India to preserve broad-based support across both parties (Republicans and Democrats) is to keep a safe distance from American politics.
Normally, a first-term US presidential visit would offer a unique chance to cement relations. Before Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter was the last US President to do so in 1978. Trump’s passage to India presents an opportunity to build on the personal chemistry between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Significant progress on matters of defence and energy will be on display between the two countries. But over the long-term, an acceleration in US-India ties depends on New Delhi being able to solidify both US parties’ support.
Currently, India and the US are managing steady relations. Although outside the Oval Office, the US establishment is watching India’s majoritarian turn with growing concern, by and large, the country remains that rare, endangered species in Washington — a source of bipartisan agreement that democratic India’s rise lies in America’s interest.
The Trump factor
The US is in the throes of a presidential election. State-level primary voting is underway. Despite being only the third president in American history to be impeached, Trump is unbowed. Defiant as ever, he feels vindicated by the subsequent acquittal and free to attack his political rivals. Meanwhile, the Democrats are distraught that Trump not only escaped removal from office but is riding high on a robust economy, while their race to select a nominee to unseat him remains unsettled.
Before Trump, US leaders tried, with varying success, to adhere to Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s dictum that “partisan politics [must stop] at the water’s edge.” Suffice it to say this president doesn’t share Vandenberg’s belief. Trump sees foreign policy as a natural extension of his political interests to an unprecedented degree.
In fact, he hasn’t hesitated to criticise his opposition in front of other world leaders or covet the overt political support of perceived fellow travellers such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Tall leaders before a foreign crowd
Despite the presence of some Democrats, the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ extravaganza last year raised some eyebrows among progressives. Modi’s tacit endorsement of Trump in Houston has mostly faded from memory, as the finishing touches are being applied to the ‘Namaste Trump’ event in Gujarat.
Trump would hardly be the first to use a massive overseas gathering to highlight his credentials as a strong world leader to an audience back home. In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign advisers asked for permission to deliver a speech before Germany’s iconic Brandenburg Gate to showcase his foreign policy chops. Not wanting to create the appearance of backing the Democrat Obama against Republican nominee John McCain, German chancellor Angela Merkel declined. Obama spoke elsewhere in Berlin.
Politicking overseas shouldn’t cross the line. The problem is that Trump’s critics contend he often doesn’t know — and generally doesn’t care — where that line falls. The leader may use a made-for-TV moment in Gujarat, or a Delhi press conference, to carve-up his political opposition. Remember, Democrats regard the president’s actions in withholding military assistance to Ukraine to squeeze out potentially embarrassing information about a rival as an abuse of presidential power.
The burden of domestic politics
Even prior to impeachment, Washington was hypersensitive to signs of foreign interference after Russia’s not-so-hidden influence in the 2016 elections on Trump’s behalf. Congress’s Ukraine investigation only intensified the conviction among many that he could leverage overseas friends to advance his personal ambitions.
Modi should be on high alert against getting India ensnared in internecine US politics by appearing to favour the president. In practice, navigating the fine line between being a gracious host to the famously mercurial leader of an important strategic partner, and appearing to support his quest for four more years won’t be so easy.
Having decided to host Trump at this pivotal moment in US politics, the Indian government should keep it simple and stick to the high ground of shared democratic values, national interests, and approaches to managing global challenges and emerging threats. Delhi’s insights on protecting elections from foreign meddling would be welcome — and remind leaders across the US political spectrum as to why they placed a strategic bet on India in the first place.
As the country struggles to put social unrest and economic malaise behind it, now more than ever, India needs enthusiastic support from all corners. That means speaking authentically to the ideas that unite both major American parties.
If Modi can’t generate bipartisan US support from next week’s Trump visit, he would do well to avoid any steps that actively undermine it.
The author worked in the Obama Administration and the US Senate on India matters. He is a managing director at Hills & Company, International Consultants. Views are personal.