Taking the long view

India may gain a few advantages if Trump wins

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 22.10.16

What is good for Indian Americans isn't necessarily good for India. What liberal white Americans find repugnant doesn't necessarily hurt India. While these are sound reasons for dispassionately assessing Donald Trump's candidacy, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that he is the very first presidential aspirant with a personal stake in India's stability and prosperity. "I have big jobs going up in India... India is doing great," says the 70-year-old real estate billionaire with his eye on Pune, Mumbai and other Indian cities. A strong India that can resist challenges from China and Pakistan could take his private fortune to new heights.

Few American politicians are clued up about the great world outside teeming with foreigners. John Fitzgerald Kennedy thought he knew enough to compare Robert Clive's rule in India with Oliver Cromwell's in Ireland. Jimmy Carter pored over the Bhagvad Gita before visiting India. The president Indians loved to hate, Richard Nixon, was probably the best informed. He was only 17 when his Quaker grandmother gave him a life of Mahatma Gandhi which he read over and over again. He visited India 16 years before becoming president and came to two memorable conclusions which don't seem irrelevant today. First, the wonder was not that India was badly governed but that it was governed at all. Second, that Jawaharlal Nehru sought to "influence, if not control" South Asia, West Asia and Africa.

Ronald Reagan, whose term witnessed the first thaw in a frozen relationship, never came to India. But as he confessed later, "at least I slept a few moments in India" when his flight from Taipei to "London, England" made a late night refuelling halt in New Delhi. "He knows so little and accomplishes so much," wondered his national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane. But it was the unlikely 43rd president India fell in love with who seemed to exemplify Blaise Pascal's much-quoted line, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." George W. Bush Jr's reason lay in an astute assessment of American national interest which is why it's essential today to look for logic beyond Trump's crudities and eccentricities.

Bush, governor of Texas, Dubya to intimates, was an even more unexpected champion. He had set foot outside his country only three times in all his 54 years. He thought Grecians lived in Greece. He stared blankly when a Glamour magazine journalist uttered the word "Taliban" in a Rorschach test; enlightened about the Taliban, he replied, "Oh, I thought you said some band." The cartoon that showed him wondering why India and Pakistan should quarrel over a sweater (cashmere) was not too far off the mark. He didn't know who governed Chechnya, Pakistan or India. But it didn't matter. As Bush's communications director said, "For the American people, the relevant question is not how many names a candidate has memorised but does he have the strategic vision to lead and can he protect American interests."

Trump's public rants and raves border on the chauvinism of politicians like Britain's Nigel Farage or France's Marine Le Pen. Blacks and Hispanics probably seethe with rage when they hear him, liberals cringe with embarrassment, and radical Islamists plot new ways of bringing down the Great Satan. Middle-class women may find his sexist cracks revolting. White American have-nots are inspired and uplifted. But when Salman Khurshid, the former external affairs minister, told Georgetown University students that "India would be very, very worried" if Trump were elected, he let his Oxbridge sensibilities run away with his Indian instincts.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman, Khurshid possibly suspects Trump is better disposed towards Narendra Modi than Hillary Clinton who ensured as secretary of state that the visa ban remained effective. Trump greeted Modi's win in 2014 with predicting that "money will pour into India" because he "has done a fantastic job of bringing people together". But that's a partisan, not national, objection. It's also possible that like many Indians, including Modi, Khurshid is concerned about H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers being curtailed. Like many Americans, including Mrs Clinton, Trump is concerned about them not being curtailed. His website promises to raise H-1B wages to "force" American companies to give these "coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed... workers... who have been passed over in favor of the H-1B program". But his promise to "soften the position" to attract "talented people" might have encouraged the recent Republican Hindu Coalition rally.

India needs to rethink its attitude to H-1B visas. It was shaming when Modi, who is so high on "Make in India" patriotism, in effect begged Barack Obama for jobs for people our government has spent a fortune on training but cannot employ because frivolities like cow protection, chanting "Bharat Mata ki jai" and anti-Pakistan triumphalism take precedence over growth. India can't complain if Indian software companies which grabbed 86 per cent of the total H-1B visas issued in 2014 (China, accounting for the third largest immigrant group in the US, after Mexico and India, took only 5 per cent), have to pay higher fees or suffer restrictions. Employment permits are not a right. The demand for H-1B visas, whose holders have been compared to indentured labourers, underlines the sad fact that for all Modi's bravado, Indians are anxious to work in the United States of America for less than American wages.

Trump can be expected to view India's genuine concerns with sympathy if India doesn't thwart his "desire for many years to be involved in a great project in Mumbai". A 2010 initiative didn't succeed, but in 2012, a Pune developer announced a luxury residential property with "two striking glass façade towers of 23 storeys each, offering 46 spectacular single-floor residences". Mumbai's 75-storey skyscraper with gold and glass three- and four-bedroom apartments equipped with indoor Jacuzzis, Poggenpohl kitchen cabinets and automatic toilets was launched four years later. Another Pune project for a 65-storey skyrise has been pending since Prithviraj Chavan's time.

Strictly speaking, these are not Trump's projects. But the Indian developers constructing them have paid to use the Trump brand-name and must follow the Trump template. To some extent, therefore, the Republican candidate has staked his reputation on them. No wonder he says "India is doing great" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPkHW0mA8O4 and laments that "Nobody talks about it". It's in his personal interest that India should "do great" and that people should talk about it. His representatives here claim Trump and his sons are "extremely bullish on India" and have plans to expand to many more cities.

Trump's perception of restoring American greatness includes taking back jobs lost because of China, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam and India. This may involve some bargaining. But he also sees India as a stabilizing force in Asia and caused a flutter in the dovecotes by calling Pakistan "probably the most dangerous country in the world" because of its nuclear weapons. He calls India "the check to Pakistan" and has vowed to free Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor languishing in jail for helping the Americans track down Osama bin-Laden, "in two minutes". Cutting aid to Pakistan isn't ruled out either. Obama, too, called Pakistan "dangerously dysfunctional" but the difference lies in Republican readiness to translate belief into action.

This is a hypothetical discussion that will not influence the election outcome. But it bears remembering that India's relations with the Democrats have often been strained because of their professed concern for human rights and religious freedom and opposition to proliferation. Generally speaking, the Republicans tend to be more mindful of geopolitical reality. None of this is to say Trump will either win or be a better president than Mrs Clinton if he does. But his special reason for wanting to help India sets him apart from every other US politician. A Trump presidency may not be unmitigated disaster for India.