What can we predict about U.S.-India relations in the coming Trump years?

What can we predict about U.S.-India relations in the coming Trump years?


By Ajit Maan
Best Defense guest columnist

The recent changes to India’s social cohesion and foreign policy that were inaugurated along with President Narendra Modi may foreshadow changes Americans can expect to result from Donald Trump’s impending inauguration.

Both countries are experiencing tension between the need for global economic ties and free trade on one hand, and popular backlash against globalization on the other. Longing for a return to an idealized past, and nationalistic slogans like “Make in India” and “Make America Great Again,” implicitly suggest that globalization undermines national economic interests and also imply that it is possible to turn back the clock on interdependent economies.

In India, the increased purchasing power of a new, techy middle class is running into an increasingly xenophobic national identity. In the economic seat of Maharashtra, for example, extremists have raised the slogan “Maharashtra for Marathis,” reflecting an anti-immigration, anti-English language, and anti-Muslim agenda, all backed up with violence. Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has been involved in attacks against non-Marati speakers, immigrant communities, and businesses owned by non-Marathis. Both Modi’s BJP party and Shiv Sena have a history of conducting terror campaigns against non-Hindus and have effective grass-roots support. The Indian prime minister has had an intimate and lifelong association with the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, with it’s political goal of a Hindu nation, of which the BJP, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, is a part.

There is a feeling in both countries of victimization of the masses by minorities. For example, the influential upper middle class Patels rioted — some 30,000 strong — in the Western Indian State of Gujarat, because of perceived social inequities. Ironically, this privileged group is claiming that the lowest castes have been given unfair economic advantages by the “reservations” (India’s version of affirmative action). Patel rhetoric does not not account for the fact that changes in economic class do not translate into changes in caste status.

Religious nativism has found its place in both countries. India, home to the original “Muslim ban,” might re-invigorate it as a government policy rather than what it is now — social policy in some pockets that the central government overlooks and Modi personally refuses to object to.

Plurality has begun to be labeled “anti-national.” Whether advocated by intellectuals, artists, student protestors, religious minorities, all are seen as elitist threats and justified target of majority violence. Muslims have always been a favorite target, but now their marginalization is so widely accepted that BJP parliamentarians feel free to suggest that India’s Muslim populations should “go to Pakistan.”

What do these similarities mean for U.S.-India relations looking forward? Any changes to trade and immigration are two areas that will seriously impact both country’s economies, and while Trump has issued contrary statements about each, the economic bottom line will probably carry both countries into mutually beneficial agreements, despite nationalistic rhetoric of “keeping jobs at home.”

Identity politics have worked for both Trump and Modi in their own countries, and they mesh nicely. Far-right Indian groups like Hindu Sena are celebrating Trump’s victory, and the ongoing prayers of the fringe group Mahasabha were answered.

The anti-establishment mood on which both Modi and Trump rode in depends upon positioning the establishment as somehow outside of the mainstream. They can be expected to continue to position themselves this way — as both representatives of the masses and yet outsiders of the establishment.

As Trump is comfortable with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Modi shouldn’t be a problem. Relatedly, human rights will not a major concern, nor safeguarding minority communities. Trump has said, “The Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House.” And better yet, “I love Hindu.” Can’t beat that.

Ajit Maan is a security and defense analyst and author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies and co-editor of Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare. She has contributed to the Indian Defense Review, the Indian Military Review, Indian Strategic Studies, Real Clear Defense, Defense and Intelligence Norway, Foreign Policy, the Small Wars Journal, and the Strategy Bridge.

Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images