If you missed US president Donald Trump’s two-day state visit to India earlier this week, you were either living under a rock or lost in the Himalayas. I’ve rarely seen any head of state being given the kind of welcome Trump received in India—a roadshow and a raucous T-20 style final, held, somewhat appropriately, in the world’s largest cricket stadium. In the grand finale that evening, the former real estate developer from Manhattan saw the monument that has inspired his garish casino in Atlantic City.
It is a visit the showman-president and master of impulsive diplomacy is unlikely to ever forget. Last October, we saw a sombre but significant welcome for Chinese president Xi Jinping in Mahabalipuram, as he arrived for the second India-China informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And just a month before that, the Indian prime minister was in Vladivostok with Russian president Vladimir Putin where, among other things, both leaders attended a judo contest. All these visits, effective blends of diplomacy and showmanship, are significant threads in a new, pragmatic Indian foreign policy, as the world’s fifth largest economy, soon to be the third largest, redefines its role on the world stage as an emerging power.
India Today March 9 cover, Coming Up Trumps.
Today, there are few countries in the world that enjoy the unity in diplomatic diversity that India does. We share excellent relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Russia and the United States, not all of whom see eye to eye with each other. New Delhi has delinked idealism from its foreign policy as it pursues a new, pragmatic, India-first engagement with them.
This clean break from the past became apparent a year ago when Indian jets bombed a terror training camp in mainland Pakistan after a suicide bomb attack killed 40 CRPF troopers almost a fortnight earlier. It was a clear signal that unlike previous terror outrages, India was not going to lean on the US to pressurise a neighbour that had become accustomed to using terror as an instrument of statecraft. Instead, India rolled up its sleeves and did something about it. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons did not matter and the Indian stance was perhaps vindicated when no country of consequence criticised its ‘non-military pre-emptive strike’. The same pattern played out when Article 370 was abrogated — international censure, especially by the usual suspects, was muted.
New Delhi’s policy towards its strategic competitor China’s efforts to build influence in South Asia has been to focus on building small infrastructure projects in the neighbourhood with an emphasis on connectivity. India is working to rebuild its links with Africa and is pursuing ties with Europe. In the Asia-Pacific, it has raised its engagement in the so-called ‘Quadrilateral of democracies’—Japan, Australia and the US being the other three pillars—to the foreign secretary level. This, even as it ensures none of its dalliances turn into formal alliances.
The new foreign policy is willing to weaponise trade and take on President Trump for terminating India’s preferential trade status under its Generalized System of Preferences. Trump had to come to India, deal or no deal. India would not be rushed into a trade agreement, but it would not let that come in the way of deal-sweeteners like a $3 billion defence deal and a newly announced global strategic partnership.
This vibrant and aggressive policy has seen India engage nearly every country on the planet. The abiding self-interest, of course, remains maximising our economic interests even though this policy might sometime seem contrary to an economic policy that erects trade barriers back home.
Our cover story, ‘Coming up Trumps’, is written by Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa, who has tracked the changing contours of India’s engagement with the world over the past few years and who sees an economic core to India’s new foreign policy. “At the end of the day, without economic clout, you are nowhere,” he says. Chengappa also interviewed foreign minister S Jaishankar, who spoke extensively on a range of foreign policy issues.
Trump is a hot favourite for re-election this November, primarily because he has walked the talk on boosting US economic growth. This is a lesson his new best friend, Prime Minister Modi, would do well to learn from him.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, Coming Up Trumps, for March 9, 2020)