US-India Relations under TRUMP

A discussion with Chidanand Rajghatta

The India Ink staff, on the sidelines of an event at the Embassy of India last week, got a chance to have a conversation with Chidanand Rajghatta to on the latest developments in ties between the world's two largest democracies, India and the USA.   From bureaucratic reshuffles and new administration appointments to the American approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Chidanand takes us through what lies ahead of us. 

India Ink:  While the National Security Council (India, Pakistan and Central Asian Affairs) and Pentagon (India) appointments have already been made, we are still awaiting the appointment of an Ambassador to India. You’ve written about Ashley Tellis being a probable choice. What’s your hunch today? And how important do you think such individual appointments are to the US-India relationship?

CR: One of the best things about US-India relations today is that it is underwritten by broad people to people contacts, particularly among its elites. And more importantly, the relationship has bipartisan support on both sides. There is a history of 30-40 years of investment, both capital and human, particularly from the Indian side. It would be interesting to see how many MPs, business elites and their offspring, have studied or are studying in the American system. This background gives one a sense that the two countries are joined at the hip, regardless of changes in administration in either country. Therefore I don’t really think that individuals in such capacities can in a large way affect the trajectory of Indo-US relations. The relationship will go on as usual, Indian bureaucrats are practical and the first question I heard from Delhi was, “How do we deal with him?”


India Ink: Recently we did a piece on the Republican Hindu Coalition President, Shalabh Kumar and his growing role in this relationship given his enlarged role in recent days. How do you see someone like him who solely promotes the Hindu cause playing the role of an interlocutor between two inclusive, multi-religious and multi racial democracies?

CR: The one thing we have to acknowledge is that he’s a player, that he was far-sighted both in his relationships with Trump and with Modi, even though you may not agree with him. He bet on his beliefs and instincts, long before Modi and Trump became heads of government. So we have to hand it to him even though he’s unabashed about his pro-Hindu stance and carries it as a badge of honor. It comes at an interesting time; even within a formal system there is Hindu activism very different from a Hindutva type of activism or an extreme right wing activism. There are moderates saying there is nothing wrong with us politically organizing and lobbying for Hindus. Shalabh Kumar is a more vocal votary of such a feeling, and it’s interesting that he managed to connect to Mr. Trump and his supporters, who are also unapologetic about their Christianity and their representing a particular constituency. I have no idea about any of his real chances of being appointed in an official capacity given the unpredictability of the administration.

From everything, it’s easy to dismiss the RHC event Shalabh Kumar put up. But the fact is that Trump turned up and I’m not sure if it was because of the million dollars, but there were people there to support him and I think the Indian government has been smart to build on that event to start building ties with this administration.


India Ink: The US however appointed their Ambassador to China on the 7th of December. Given that they’re still trying to figure out their India team, does that show a stark contrast or does that just reflect the reality of the level of the relationship the US enjoys with the two countries?

CR: Let’s be realistic. Despite all the advances we’re still a 2nd or 3rd tier relationship outside the strategic realm. If we look at any of the trade statistics, we don’t materially affect their economy in as large a way as China does. On the strategic front it depends upon whether the Trump administration will adopt or continue a similar Obama-Bush type policy in Asia and view India as a potential counterweight to China. I don’t see a natural segue and I think the administration is still feeling their way around on such matters. But even though the relationship with India is on firm ground with people to people ties and institutional elite ties, when it comes to people and personnel with this administration there are still a lot of questions. Some of this has to do with the lack of bench strength because the Trump team has not fully embraced the entire Republican bench.


India Ink: Russia-China-Pakistan triumvirate,  fear of ISIS in Afghanistan, and given the heated political situation between Russia and the US, is it not important for US-Russia to cooperate for a better future for Afghanistan and what could that mean for India?

CR: Cooperation between the US and Russia with respect to Afghanistan would greatly benefit India, no doubt about that – but let’s not forget that the current Washington establishment has grown up on a plank of anti-Russia sentiment. And apart from Trump and Flynn, not many politicians and bureaucrats in the administration agree with a friendly relationship. Already you can see every cabinet principal doesn’t agree with Trump on Russia, Nikki Haley and other personnel. In the medium - long run if India decided to side with the US there would be certain issues, particularly on the front of arms purchases, given that Russians have been traditional suppliers and that the Americans are currently snagging more and more of India’s defense purchases at Russia’s expense.


India Ink: In contrast to the Obama administration, the State Department and National Security Council now have the same office for Central Asia, Pakistan and India. Do you see the Indians objecting to this bureaucratic hyphenation?

CR: No I don’t think so. Every administration does its own tinkering with the structure. It was during Obama’s tenure when Pakistan with Afghanistan was put under the Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAAP) grouping. That may be scrapped and we may be going back to the old system. Originally there was only the South Asia Bureau to which they added the five stans to make it South Central Asia bureau. Organically this grouping makes sense – the nations are contiguous, most of them Islamic nations, and the idea was also to wean away from the Russian orbit. But India has always occupied a big special place whether you call it South Asia or South Central Asia. I don’t think it will particularly offend anyone. India is understood to be the biggest strategic partner in the region and there is abundant attention given to the relationship.


India Ink: Recently India’s most wanted man, Hafiz Saeed, was put under house arrest by the Pakistani authorities. Do you see this action as a result of a new Trump-Modi combine?

CR: The fact is that the Pakistanis have finally acted. Shalabh Kumar claims that it was within ten days of Trump taking over, and that’s true. They’ve gone a little farther than they have gone before -- de-licensed all the weapons of his group. It does appear that the US under Trump has taken a much tougher approach towards Pakistan compared to the Obama administration, which was tough but very private and understated.


Chidanand (Chidu) Rajghatta is a journalist with the Times of India who has long written the first draft of history from the frontiers of India, the United States, and their engagement with the world. Chidu was born in Bangalore, India where he also grew up, studied, and began his journalistic career, before moving first to Delhi, then Mumbai, and then to Washington DC in 1994.