India is a long way from acquiring the status accorded to Western European countries, Australia and New Zealand

by Luv Puri

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in February. Both Modi and Trump have started eyeing the Indian-American segment 

President Donald Trump termed the United States of America’s relationship with India as “extraordinary” and boasted that a lot of progress had been made in the bilateral ties during his maiden official visit to India where the US will be doing a lot of business.

A dispassionate analysis is the need of the hour to assess the use of the word, ‘extraordinary’, to independently analyse the assumptions that had been made about the relationship between the two countries during and after the visit by State functionaries and commentators on both sides. Over the last two decades, Indo-US relations have improved dramatically in terms of bilateral trade as well as government-to-government engagement on critical issues. The engagement now covers a vast ground, encapsulating several fields like education, space, energy, defence, counter-terrorism and agriculture.

The change is visible even outside government circles. Only two decades ago, studies on India were relegated to regional studies in US universities or think tanks. India-related fields of study were popular in disciplines like history or development economics. Now India finds an independent mention in academia as well as in strategic and economic debates, particularly in the broader Asian context. Interest in India has grown progressively since the late 1990s.

Apart from looking at the positives, a reality check is required to fully comprehend the contemporary practical realities of the engagement. The facts of geography, economics and political realities cannot be ignored in this context. Many strategic thinkers have repeatedly argued that the US requires India to contain China’s geo-strategic ambitions in Asia. There is hardly any elaboration on how India could act as a balancer to China with the two economies having vastly different muscle and trajectories. India’s per capita GDP is around $2000, one-fifth of China’s, which is already a global power in some spheres. The skewed narrative in India is partly a result of the fact that its strategic discourse is divorced from the economic realities on the ground.

The formulation of a growing common narrative around global challenges between the two countries may also be erroneous. Both countries need to be context sensitive and factor in the societal composition and local sensitivities while articulating a grand common narrative on bilateral platforms. Invoking terms like Islamic terrorism comes easily to Trump. He did so in his speech in Gujarat. However, for a country like India, with arguably the second-largest Muslim population in the world and with Muslims making up approximately 14 per cent of its population, internalizing these terms in the policy discourse has different ramifications. The use of terms like Islamic terrorism may do little domestic harm in an American context. As per the Pew Religious Landscape survey, 22.8 per cent is religiously unaffiliated, atheists make up 3.1 per cent, agnostics constitute 4 per cent and Muslims merely 0.9 per cent of the US population. In India, where religious sensitivities are high and hate speech have ignited communal violence as the recent shameful incidents in Delhi revealed, a more careful approach is required to avoid even the perception of equating any religion with terrorism.

Both Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have started eyeing the Indian-American segment for different reasons. Approximately four million Indian-Americans have a high per capita income compared to other ethnic groups. This is primarily due to the fact that the immigration bill signed by Lyndon B. Johnson on October 3, 1965 had removed stipulations on migration from Asian countries. This enabled highly educated Indians to study and work in the US. The role of some prominent Indian-Americans who came to the US in 1970s was pivotal in the signing of the US-India nuclear deal.

Aside from Indian-Americans with a Gujarat connection, many of whom followed the family reunification model to become American citizens, the reality of Modi supporters in the US is different. Most of them are technological workers and are on the H1B visa, which is a non-immigrant visa that allows US employers to employ foreign nationals in specialty occupations in the US for a specified period. Going by the present immigration policies, it will take at least 15 to 20 years, or even more, for many of the recent immigrants to become US citizens unless they marry American citizens. Due to the sheer size of the two most populous countries, the recent Indian and Chinese immigrants are at a disadvantage as there is a stipulation of 7 per cent quota for each country to acquire permanent residency rights, which is the first step to acquire American citizenship unless they marry an American.

With respect to Indian Americans, particularly second-generation Indian-Americans, most of them have the same anxieties about Trump’s domestic policies as other persons of colour, a common term used in the US to describe minority groups or other religious minorities such as Jews. They are potentially at the receiving end of violent forms of white nationalism. That is the reason why a majority of the voters from the Indian-American community vote for the Democratic Party. Some of the first-generation immigrants may have carried with them the same prejudices from their native countries. However, many from the second generation move from small American towns, where their parents had moved to from India, to multicultural, global and relatively progressive cities like New York or San Francisco. And even while looking at India as one of the minority groups, it is unlikely that they would share the majoritarian or conservative impulses.

India is a long way from acquiring the status that the US has accorded to Western European countries or to Australia and New Zealand. For instance, citizens of most of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries can get the US visa on arrival whereas Indians still have to apply in India to ensure a greater scrutiny. The implicit logic is that the citizens of these countries have no reason to illegally stay in the US as they are guaranteed the same or a better quality of life in their native countries. The same argument can be made for many better-off Indians who visit the US regularly to meet family members or for business. In the same vein, there is a security cooperation that exists between the US and other allies. For example, in international intelligence-sharing, a formulation called Five Eyes exists among the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There is also the Nine Eyes — Five Eyes plus Denmark, France, Holland, Norway — and Fourteen Eyes: Nine Eyes plus Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Spain.

Trump’s visit may have generated a hype in terms of the relationship between the US and India. The US sold military hardware to India worth over $3.5 billion and discussions continue between the two sides to clinch a trade deal. In a nutshell, relations between the US and India have definitely improved in the last two decades, but the claim of a special relationship is not true yet.