Before yesterday’s visit to India Donald Trump heaped praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying, “I remember India before was very torn. There was a lot of dissension, fighting and he, Modi brought it all together. Like a father would. Maybe he is the father of India.”
Donald Trump may have called Prime Minister Modi ‘father of India’, but Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi is not impressed. Reacting to Trump’s comment, Tushar Gandhi asked if Trump would also replace himself with George Washington, one of America’s founding fathers.
Trump received a warm reception from the people of India, but US and Indian relations have not always been so cordial. Through periods of estrangement and of rapprochement, Indian and American officials have sought to overcome policy disagreements and forge a partnership based on shared interests and values.
“India’s foreign policy still gives rise to grave doubts in the Western mind,” wrote Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, an Indian diplomat and the first female UN General Assembly president, in 1956. The USA interpreted India’s official policy of “non-alignment” as favouring the Soviet Union.
For its part, India worried about close ties between America and Pakistan, a concern that led the country to sign a treaty of co-operation with the Soviet Union in 1971. The following year Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bristled at America’s perennial failure to acknowledge the Indian perspective, lamenting that “India was regarded with disapproval and resentment because of her independent policy”.
Relations improved with the end of the Cold War and India’s economic liberalisation. But after India conducted a nuclear test in 1998, the United States imposed sanctions. Ensuing negotiations proceeded cautiously. Strobe Talbott, who previously served as the deputy secretary of state, described Washington’s goal as “preserving the viability of the global non-proliferation regime”. At the time Jaswant Singh, his Indian counterpart, wrote, “India is now a nuclear weapons state, as is Pakistan. That reality can neither be denied nor wished away.”
The United States acknowledged India as a nuclear power in an agreement reached in 2005. Ashton B Carter, former US defence secretary, expressed guarded support for the agreement, noting that although “the deal is clear about what the United States conceded, it is vague about what India will give in return”.
Today, even if India and the United States diverge on specific policy issues, both countries need each other to balance Chinese power in Asia. Ultimately, the greatest obstacle to a deeper partnership is wishful thinking about what it can achieve.
Back to the visit of Donald Trump. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation constructed a 600-metre-long, four feet high wall to keep Sarania Vaas slums out of Trump’s sight on his way to address a crowd of more than 100,000. Officials said the wall was constructed for security reasons and not to hide the slum.
Outspoken Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who represents Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha, tweeted: “In New York, Modi drives past the Waldorf Astoria. In Ahmedabad, Trump drives past a Walled-Off Dystopia.”
We all have to wait and see what happens in the months ahead after this historic visit.