2 July 2017

Score the physical for Modi, the substantive for Trump, and danger looming

by Bharat Karnad

He did it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did stride across to the other lectern and envelope US President Donald Trump in a hug. Now slo-mo that entire sequence and you’ll see that even when forewarned about the Indian leader doing precisely this, Trump was unprepared for the physicality of it, and with some awkwardness limply reciprocated by putting his arm around Modi’s shoulders. This was the PM’s way of imposing himself physically on his American counterpart, forcing him to react. This was no bad game play.

But this imposition did not extend to the economic aspects of relations in the joint statement, where the US had its way. Sure, the designation of Syed Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahideen as global terrorist (GT) must have satisfied the Indian side enough for it to hold back on injecting anything remotely related to the free flow of services and skilled manpower (H!B visa issue) in the public statement by Modi. Moreover, while there was mention about destroying “radical Islamic terrorism” — which phrase for Trump was a repeat from his Riyadh summit with the Saud-led sunni collective, there was none about Pakistan, its role in using terrorism against India or Afghanistan, or any pointed reference as was sought by Delhi.

The US State Department’s cleverness here must be noted. It played up to the Indians with the naming of Salahuddin without undermining its interests in Pakistan, which last would have happened had the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba chief Hafiz Sayeed earned the GT label from Trump as well, something MEA had lobbied for. Why was the fingering of Salahuddin, and not Sayeed, by the US clever from the American perspective? Because Salahuddin is a native of the Srinagar Valley, was a candidate in the 1989 state elections and crossed the LOC into POK only after his electoral defeat (assisted, unfortunately, by the Indian authorities), and labeling him as GT would not upset Islamabad as much as directly naming Sayeed would have done. Getting wind of what was in the offing, the Pakistan government quickly staged the terrorist incidents and rolled out the videos of Salahuddin ordering strikes on Indian targets in the last 2-3 days almost as if to prop up the US case against the Hizbul leader. This to say that Pakistan was quite happy to sacrifice Salahuddin, while protecting Sayeed.

For the rest, the American had the run of it. There was not even an indirect and remote reference to H1B-immigration issues and their cost to the Indian IT industry, nor any concern expressed in the PM’s statement about unwarranted pillorying of the Indian pharma industry juxtaposed against fulsome mention of unbalanced trade, and trade deficit that Trump stated needed correction by India requiring to open up its market to American imports of all kinds. Trump also was happy with the Indian side signing up for American shale gas.

But fortunately, Modi did not succumb to the trap set for him by those in Washington advocating that India buy the vintage F-16 aircraft to merely update its combat aircraft assembly line technology, combined with the move by Lockheed Martin to precipitate a positive decision by securing an MOU with Tata Advanced Systems for assembling the F-16.

The fact is the US, notwithstanding its high-flying rhetoric about empowering the Indian military with cutting-edge fighting technology to keep the common threat, China, on its toes, not a single military high-tech collaboration has got underway from the time such talk was initiated by President Reagan’s Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the mid-1980s. There’s something really wrong here.

The US hesitation in exporting/selling to India some decisive miltech is evidenced, for instance, in Washington’s approving the long-range, long endurance, Predator drone for maritime surveillance rather than the armed Predator India was keen to buy in fairly large numbers, because the US State Department fears these would be used against terrorist targets in POK, and upset the American apple cart in the Af-Pak Region.

Further, as I have consistently pointed out, it seems Trump’s government, in line with the previous regimes in Washington, has decided to impose a low lethality ceiling on the armaments/technologies the US sells to India. Whence the American eagerness to sell unarmed drones, obsolete F-16 type combat aircraft, and prohibitively expensive technologies that Indian platforms cannot cost-effectively integrate, such as the EMALS (Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System) for the 2nd and 3rd indigenous V-class carriers being built in Kochi.

Perhaps, the Modi government, aware of the limitations of the America connection, sent off part-time defence minister Arun Jaitley to Moscow to firm up defence ties with Russia (including the lease of the second Akula SSN, and investing in the FGFA) around the same time as the PM was taking off for the US.

Better to have the Russian bird in hand, than two American birds in the bush.

But there’s a great danger looming. There’s obviously a certain warmth in the Trump-Modi tango — they seem personally to like each other, each pressed the right buttons — Trump by praising Modi’s leadership and his stewardship of India, etc, etc — something the PM craves as personal endorsement; Modi in praising his opposite number, being over-effusive in expressing his gratitude for the reception by Trump, inviting the President’s daughter Ivanka to lead the US investors’ delegation to Delhi, etc., etc. So what’s the problem? The danger is that Modi will nurse such warm feelings for Trump and in the wake of a “successful” summit in Washington impulsively approve/order the purchase of the extremely dated F-16 aircraft or the completely inappropriate EMALS, etc. After all, impulsiveness has its costs. The country will be paying for the Rafale folly for decades. To add the F-16 to this mess would be to sink the Indian Air Force.

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