The India-U.S. Relationship Is Bigger Than Its Showboating Leaders

Trump and Modi met as Delhi burned, but the democratic principles underpinning ties haven’t vanished.

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Feb. 25. Prakesh Singh/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to pure political theater, few can match Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. But during their recent encounter in New Delhi, the U.S. president and Indian prime minister were upstaged by the avoidable tragedy unfolding across town.

In the Indian capital’s worst communal violence in decades, clashes between Hindus and Muslims left over 50 people dead and injured more than 200. At least some local police, who fall under federal jurisdiction, failed to protect residents or even incited rioters. The calamity thrust upon the U.S. president a difficult test of how to react while on the foreign soil of an important but sensitive partner—with the whole world watching.

India’s leadership has been roundly criticized for the background to the violence. After his 2019 reelection, Modi elevated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu majoritarian agenda. He revoked the constitutionally provided autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. His party ushered in a law expediting citizenship for religious minorities fleeing neighboring countries, but not Muslims. The measure touched off nationwide protests and set the stage for the debacle in Delhi. Journalists, civil society, and businesses are all under pressure, not to mention India’s secular constitution.

As Trump himself related, he opted not to discuss the bloodshed with Modi, but he did raise the importance of religious freedom more generally. The power of the private messages Trump said he delivered was effectively blunted by the effusive praise he lavished on the Indian leader’s record. His bottom line? It is “up to India,” the leader of the free world said dismissively, when asked about the religious violence.

It’s not surprising that Trump and Modi should get along. Despite one being the son of a millionaire and the other the child of a tea-seller, Trump and Modi share some qualities. Neither shies from his strongman reputation, nor do they abide much criticism. Both relish a good show in front of adoring followers wearing “Make America Great Again” hats or Modi masks.

India’s leadership has been happy to embrace those qualities, especially when Trump threatened trade wars and other breaks. They figure the best way to manage the unpredictable U.S. president is to smother him in a warm, personal embrace. Last fall, the leaders strode hand in hand before an enthusiastic crowd of over 50,000 Indian Americans in Houston’s professional football stadium. Modi’s invitation for a return engagement in his home state was simply irresistible.

But U.S.-India cooperation long predates either leader. Following U.S. President Bill Clinton’s March 2000 trip to India, 20 years of bipartisan efforts leading up to Trump’s visit have aligned, with much difficulty, the world’s oldest and largest democracies. Successive administrations grasped that India’s remarkable historical arc served as a beacon for liberal values and its vast, young population as an important market. The countries quietly shared concerns over China’s ambitions and recognized that the world’s greatest challenges, like violent extremism, require India and the United States to work closely together.

However imperfectly, this administration has hewed to this consensus. In fact, under Trump, the U.S.-India defense partnership has experienced some surprising successes. Despite persistent trade irritants with Delhi, Washington’s focus on Beijing as a strategic competitor has helped cement the relationship.

Against this backdrop, the first day of Trump’s visit went reasonably well. In front of over 100,000 people, the president repeatedly invoked liberal values, highlighting India’s generally peaceful and tolerant democracy. His stroll with the first lady at the majestic Taj Mahal sent a positive message about pluralism.

Day two in Delhi, however, was a grim return to reality. It wasn’t just the haunting image of an American president and an Indian prime minister holding forth as part of the city literally burnedThe trip’s business end proved short on substance, with several noticeable exceptions.

The leaders did muster significant defense sales announcements, tangible signs of energy collaboration, and nonbinding understandings on health and medical products. As China expands its footprint deeper into the South China Sea, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean, both countries have enhanced maritime security cooperation to safeguard well-established global norms. They agreed to establish an office in India to help finance high-quality infrastructure. These and various other joint activities should not be minimized.

Yet the U.S.-India relationship is perceptibly shrinking in ambition and dynamism. After over a year of negotiations, a limited trade agreement still eluded Trump and Modi. A so-called mini-deal would not have covered large swaths of business activity (such as e-commerce and information technology), but it offered the prospect of building trust between economies in rather different places. Scant attention was paid to pressing environmental challenges. As China approaches world leadership in green technologies and India makes progress toward ambitious renewable energy targets, the Trump administration has by-and-large chosen to remain on the sidelines. Trump may have spent more time in his Delhi press conference downplaying the risks of COVID-19 than he did discussing how the two countries can work together to fight it.

Even as bilateral ties grow, Trump and Modi are enabling each other’s more dubious tendencies. After Trump was handed a giant political stage by India in an election year, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the president couldn’t find his voice as a wave of violence descended around him. With his Muslim travel bans and false moral equivalencies, Trump has squandered his credibility. Yet staying silent, after visiting the onetime home of Mahatma Gandhi, only provides cover for the erosion of civil rights and rule of law in India.

On trade, the transactional president is also ill suited to persuade India that opening markets can revive a sputtering economy and create the jobs that India so urgently needs. As Trump goes on about tariffs, trade deficits, and related minutiae, small wonder that India’s 2020-2021 budget featured numerous duty hikes last month.

In Asia, the White House’s unpredictability and inattentiveness reinforce long-standing, latent Indian tendencies to question U.S. reliability on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Not a single diplomat from the State Department traveled to Delhi as part of Trump’s official delegation (due to a scheduling conflict with the annual Global Chiefs of Mission Conference). The twin anchors of the administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific diplomacy are gradually coming unmoored. If balancing China is a shared priority, both countries need to get their houses in order.

Fixing the fundamentals requires recognizing what largely brought India and the United States together in the first place: the sturdy bedrock of democratic principles, economic openness, and a more patient, long-term vision of their relationship. What does that actually look like? With democracy in decline across parts of the world, the countries should be swapping insights on how to protect elections from direct and indirect attempts at foreign meddling. Indeed, that kind of cooperation, or working together to tackle the corrupting role of black money in societies, would remind leaders across the U.S. political spectrum why they placed a strategic bet on India in the first place.

India still has extraordinary potential as a durable partner in a region that may be the world’s center of gravity for decades to come. Prior to Trump’s visit, the experienced diplomat William J. Burns reminded everyone that “the relationship is bigger than these two leaders.” That certainly has been the case in the past and can ring true in the days ahead. The sooner that both governments and societies can take to heart Burns’s vital message, the better.

Atman Trivedi is a Managing Director at Hills & Company and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He worked on India policy at the State and Commerce Departments and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Twitter: @atmanmtrivedi

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