Will Trump ask Modi the impossible?

Published: January 24, 2017 - 18:37 Updated: August 4, 2017 - 17:03

There are concerns that the newly anointed US President may ask India to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan

There was understandable anxiety in India’s foreign policy establishment when US President Donald Trump announced that he would be placing a call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the night of January 24 – two days before Republic Day. The phone call, which was described as a “great conversation” by one of Trump’s aides, did not elicit a similar gushy response from the Indian side. The readout or the press release of the discussion came from Washington. Quite clearly, the Indian side did not have much to offer beyond informing the media that Modi had accepted Trump’s invitation to visit the US soon. His trip could be as early as in March or April, but its outcome will depend on the content of the telephonic conversation between the two leaders.

The readout from Washington suggests that they discussed broad areas of cooperation in defence and the economy. They also discussed security in South and Central Asia and “resolved to stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism”. Although this bit of the statement sounds innocuous enough, the back story gives it a different spin.

Hardnews has learnt that the Trump administration put in some work before Trump dialled Modi’s number on January 24. Trump’s aides spoke with some eminent Indians in Washington and Delhi. The newly anointed President, it is learnt, is likely to offer India an opportunity to be a frontline state in his fight against Islamic terror. During his inauguration on January 20, Trump had promised to finish off the Islamic State (IS). Hardnews spoke with an expert with whom the new administration has been in touch and was informed that the Trump Administration is cognisant of Pakistan’s “dirty” role in Afghanistan and would want India to put boots on the ground to take on the extremists of the Taliban or IS. This is not the first time such a demand would be made on India. In the past, too, India has been encouraged to send its troops to Afghanistan to protect its interests and investments, but the government politely declined as it would have disastrous implications for its religiously plural polity. If an impression gains ground that India is interfering in Afghanistan at the behest of the US or some other foreign powers, the decision could be viewed unkindly. A similar offer had come to the BJP government to send troops to Iraq when Atal Behari Vajpayee was prime minister. Reportedly, his deputy, LK Advani, had agreed to send troops to West Asia but Vajpayee, who knew the Indian psyche better, found a way to dodge US pressure. He apparently contacted Left parties to organise massive street protests against US intervention in Iraq and used this as an excuse to tell off the Americans. Vajpayee’s cleverness worked then. The big question is how Modi will ward off pressure from someone like Trump, who will use every trick in the book to get Indian troops to fight his wars in the name of fighting Islamic terror.

India does not really want to get bogged down in these unending wars of West Asia or Afghanistan to project its power outside its borders. The US and now even the Gulf countries want to use Indian troops to look after their interests. In the 1950s, a prescient Canadian High Commissioner, Escott Reid, in his book, Envoy to Nehru, had come to the conclusion that the relationship between the US and India would depend on New Delhi’s agreeing to provide troops for the Third World War. The fight against the IS is being perceived as the new version of a World War if one takes into cognisance the number of countries  battling the outfit. Although India has not faced much trouble from the IS, it is worried by the spike in Islamic radicalism in the region. Its troubles have grown with the rise in influence of the Taliban and it fears that it will not be able to protect its considerable investments if the existing government is overwhelmed by the extremists. It fears increase in its troubles due to the support the Pakistani army is allegedly providing to the Pakistan Taliban for maintaining strategic depth. The US has been preying on these fears to get India to play a more proactive role than just providing soft power support. Recently, India supplied four MI helicopters for anti-Taliban operations and weapon systems to beef up the Afghan army.

India is also working with Iran to provide a new port to Afghanistan to side-step Pakistan. India’s plan is to use eastern Iran’s Chabahar port for transshipment of its goods to Afghanistan and beyond. That way, India feels, the investment in Afghanistan can be used better by reviving Route 606, the Delaram-Zaranj highway, which has been built by India. Trade through Iran to Afghanistan was aimed at this. India has also allocated Rs.100 crore for the port where it has constructed two jetties, but the work is progressing at a leisurely pace. The Iranian government has demanded greater speed in completing the project as well as creating financial infrastructure for boosting trade between the two countries. Indians are looking over their shoulder at how Trump will react if they show greater warmth towards Iran. After all, during the election campaign, Trump threatened to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. His advisers, all opposed to Iran, amply suggested the US will take a tough line against Tehran. Iranian sources claim that though Trump has reimposed some sanctions, they are against individuals and may not hurt the country’s overall interests. Also, the ‘Muslim ban’ order that was overturned by US courts was unlikely to hurt the country, but actually help by curbing the flight of talent.

Trump’s presidency is reordering alliances in this region. India was working very closely with the US, but has realised that it would be better to work with powers like China and Russia who are less unpredictable. From this standpoint, there is some rethink going on in India’s strategic affairs community about how far New Delhi should engage with the US under Trump. Before Modi heads to Washington, it would make sense for him to engage in wideranging consultations with political parties and think tanks, as Vajpayee did when he was being pressured to send troops to Iraq. Modi would then be better prepared to deal with an aggressive Trump.