Aditya Sinha: Modi on the hunt for a Trump card

PM Modi is optimistic that he will hit it off with US President-elect Donald Trump, who has been outspoken against Islamist terror

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe (left) was the first foreign leader to meet US President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday. PM Modi had apparently asked Abe to put in a word on his behalf with Trump for a pre-inauguration meeting. Pic/AFP
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe (left) was the first foreign leader to meet US President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday. PM Modi had apparently asked Abe to put in a word on his behalf with Trump for a pre-inauguration meeting. Pic/AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big concern these days, other than the nagging doubts over how angry voters are going to get —particularly those in under-industrialised UP — over the no-end-in-sight demonetisation exercise, is whether or not he can get a meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump before the latter’s inauguration on January 20, 2017.

For Modi, a big believer both in big surprises as well as in personal bonding with other world leaders, it would be a coup more dazzling than last winter’s, which was his impromptu visit to Pakistan on Christmas Day to wish his counterpart Nawaz Sharif a Happy Birthday. Though Donald Trump professed admiration for his affluent Hindu supporters during the US election campaign, his stated position is ‘America First’, which means other countries last. Modi may get a bear hug from his fellow anti-Muslim, but possibly not much else.

Still, heavy guns have been deployed. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who has been our ambassador in Washington DC and whose tenure ends in January-end, went to the US soon after Trump’s election. Securing a pre-inauguration meeting for Modi with Trump topped his agenda. Jaishankar went to the US after Modi’s post-demonetisation visit to Japan, where he met his counterpart Shinzo Abe, another strongman leader. Both Modi and Abe share a belief in the importance of a personal relationship in high-level international relations. Abe, in fact, became the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Trump last week to forge a personal equation despite the potential pinpricks in their bilateral relationship over trade. Accompanying Trump for that meeting was daughter Ivanka and his nominee for National Security Advisor, Lt Gen Michael Flynn. Modi apparently asked Abe to put in a word on his behalf with Trump for a pre-inauguration meeting.

Modi is also planning a visit to Israel next year, which will among other things mark the 25th anniversary of the India-Israel bilateral relationship. His proposed trip was discussed during Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to India last week, and India apparently requested Israeli help in securing a pre-inauguration meeting between Modi and Trump. The Israelis have special access through Trump’s son-in-law (and Ivanka’s husband) Jared Kushner, who is close to his father-in-law and is being speculated for a key White House position such as senior counsel. His power can be seen in the way he managed to have New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Trump’s first major political supporter, dumped from the transition team; Christie as US Attorney in New Jersey had Kushner’s father (also a real estate magnate) sent to jail. Kushner is an orthodox Jew from a prominent family that supports Jewish causes. (Incidentally, Ivanka converted to Judaism for their marriage.) Kushner has pushed Trump to a pro-Israel line and even lined up a visit for him to Israel that cancelled at the last minute.

And not to be forgotten, Shalabh Kumar, the Chicago-based businessman who organised a rally of Indian Republicans for Trump in New Jersey in October, and who described Trump’s electoral victory as a ‘second Diwali’, is also working behind the scenes with his Republican Party contacts for the pre-inauguration meeting that Modi has sought. Shalabh Kumar, in fact, attended Modi’s address to the US Congress as a guest of US Speaker Paul Ryan.

New Delhi is hopeful that a meeting will come through. The team that Trump is assembling has so far been music to India’s ears: NSA-designate Mike Flynn is far more outspoken in his anti-Islamism than his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval (though Doval is no dove in these matters). The next CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has accused Imams of aiding Islamist terrorists; India’s spy chief will seek a rapport on this. Thus Modi and Doval are optimistic that a strong foundation for personal bilateral relationship already exists.

Realistically speaking, however, India’s relationship with America will largely depend on how the Trump administration sees Pakistan. While there is a view here that Trump’s people will view Pakistan unfavourably, the fact is that both the State Department and the Pentagon have deep institutional ties with Pakistan, and often see Islamabad as a key in fighting terrorism. How matters turn out also depends on who Trump selects as his Secretary of State. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is meeting Trump for the job, but some in the US media see Romney as a smokescreen for the actual candidate. Incidentally, Romney would be a good choice in India’s view. In all likelihood, both India and Pakistan will get welcome relief from the kind of hard scrutiny each would have received from a Hillary administration.

That’s why Modi is keen on nailing down a pre-inauguration meeting with Trump. At the very least, it will make for a dazzling show — and Trump recognises the value of a good show, if his unlikely electoral victory is any indication.

Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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