The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
With Donald Trump now ensconced in the White House, self-styled, anti-establishment populists are in charge of the world’s two largest democracies: India and the United States. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, believes that this is no coincidence but rather proof of a global "center-right revolt," And in 2014, as chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon singled out that year’s election of India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, as an early indicator.
After Trump promised to be a “true friend” to India and praised Modi during the campaign, some commentators claimed to see a "bromance" on the horizon. Since Trump officially became president, the two men have spoken, and the Indian prime minister even tweeted about their “warm conversation.” There have also been meetings between key foreign policy and security officials from both sides. And, according to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of India’s Hindustan Times, Trump administration officials have been telling their Indian counterparts that they are under “orders that this relationship must be good.”
Their boss has not spelled out exactly why he is so keen on India, although it is worth noting that there are five Trump Tower projects already underway in India making it one of the company’s biggest investments outside North America. Arguably, Trump is simply expressing his signature enthusiasm for a relationship that has been on an upward trajectory ever since former President George W. Bush signed a landmark nuclear cooperation deal with India. The mutual suspicions of the Cold War era have subsided as the interests of the two democracies have increasingly aligned over issues, such as confronting China and combating terrorism. India has also opened up its fast-growing economy to outside investment. One sign of the shift is a jump in the United States’ arms sales to India, both in quantity and sophistication—it is increasingly supplanting Russia as India’s key weapons supplier.
Yet beyond the overlapping interests, there are also intriguing similarities between the two leaders’ styles, the basis for their popular appeal. Namely, both have triumphed electorally by selling themselves as saviors of the nation while pursuing what one could call “majority grievance politics.” With Trump, that means appealing to his mostly white American base while Modi has tapped into anxieties within India’s Hindu majority about losing out to minorities, particularly the country’s Muslim population. “Good days are coming,” Modi promised the massive, frenzied crowds who attended his 2014 campaign rallies.
Over the six months of reporting on Modi’s campaign, I watched his brand of macho politics develop—he once boasted of having a 56 inch chest—and the singular way in which he connected with voters. He used powerful, straightforward language to communicate stirring nationalist ideas, which resonated with tens of millions of Indians frustrated with their country’s progress. He was offering them not just greater prosperity but an India with greater international clout—one that was en route to becoming a superpower. Modi made much of his humble origins in his home state of Gujarat, selling himself as a Delhi outsider who would sweep into the capital to shake up the old order, dominated by an elite revolving around the Gandhi dynasty-led Congress party then in power. His slogan might as well have been “Make India Great Again.”
The Indian prime minister, who has more Twitter and Facebook followers than Trump, has also long used social media to bypass the mainstream media. Unlike the U.S. president, he has not targeted the media, but has kept it at arm’s length since 2002, when bloody religious riots broke out in Gujarat while he was in charge of the western state, leading to widespread accusations that he allowed the violence to occur. In 2015, he launched his own app, offering constant updates on his activities. A vast army of online trolls have sprung up to pounce on any critics. Much of this trolling is orchestrated by his own party’s social media cell, according to a former insider. This all contributed to a burgeoning cult of personality around Modi. One senior Indian government official who has worked with Modi sees a clear similarity with Trump, noting, “They have both proven immune so far to all criticism or legal challenges.”
An Indian-American donor to the Trump campaign, Shalabh Kumar, claims to have facilitated the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders last July– though there is no detailed record of the event. Kumar has past ties to Modi and has been working overtime to make the “bromance” happen. He believes that New Delhi and Washington have shared interests, including in trade and fighting radical Islam.
Kumar is the founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, a lobbying group that pushes for deeper ties between Republicans and American Hindus as well as with India itself. It organized the glitzy New Jersey 2016 campaign event during which Trump heaped praise on Modi. Most recently, Kumar penned an op-ed for Breitbart, calling the two leaders “kindred spirits” prepared to stand up to “political elites” to get things done. Terrorists were now running scared, he claimed, because India and the United States have a “shared yearning to eliminate, once and for all, the scourge of Islamic extremism.”
Despite the apparent rapport between Trump and Modi, most of the conversations and meetings between their officials have been pro forma stuff—the sort of diplomatic niceties one would expect at this stage. The two leaders are expected to meet later this year, perhaps in May or June, but Chaudhuri says he has been told by Modi officials that “there is no rush.” Modi, it seems, is waiting to see how his administration settles down. New Delhi is asking the same fundamental question as other governments around the world, says Chaudhuri. And that is, what is Trump’s grand strategy for the United States? The answer at the moment, Chaudhuri says, is that “there isn’t one.”
The senior Indian government official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the media, went further, condemning what he calls Trump’s “crude schoolboy politics,” which he says could trigger instability worldwide. There is particular concern that the rhetoric of Trump and his advisors demonizes Muslims and plays into the hands of groups such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). “He won’t be able to reverse the problems he causes,” warned the official.
Despite his Hindu nationalist background, there is little chance Modi would take Trump’s hard-line approach, at least in public. The Indian prime minister might be populist in his rhetoric, but he is a pragmatist in his dealings. “Whatever he feels about Muslims in his heart, he will be politically correct in public,” says the Indian official, noting that Muslim countries have become one of the biggest sources of foreign investment in India—particularly from Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Modi has reportedly visited more Muslim countries than any other Indian prime minister.
Trump’s nativist economic policies are another concern for India—in particular, his talk of restricting imports of pharmaceuticals, a large proportion of which are made by Indian generic drug manufacturers. And New Delhi has already started lobbying against Trump administration proposals to restrict the H1B visa for temporary specialty workers, which has allowed tens of thousands of Indians to work in the U.S. tech sector.
There are significant differences between the two leaders on geopolitical strategy, too. New Delhi does not back the Trump administration’s confrontational approach toward Iran—India’s biggest oil supplier—or China. Beijing may be India’s chief rival, but the Modi government has been trying to boost trade ties with its eastern neighbor, and if U.S.-Sino tensions rise, it fears being caught in the middle.
When it comes to climate change and energy, Modi and Trump are in complete opposition. Modi has ratified the Paris climate accord, and he has committed India to generating at least 40 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. India, which has the world’s largest solar power plant, will soon be the world’s third-largest solar power generator. (The United States is still number one, a sign of the many ways in which renewable energy is now entrenched, regardless of what the new White House does.) On the other hand, Trump’s commitment to expand fossil fuel production in the United States has a potential upside for India, says Chaudhuri. If it leads to lower oil prices, that would give India a great economic boost as a major oil importer.
Still, although “America First” has become Trump’s slogan as he shakes up old relationships worldwide, Modi is taking a multilateral approach. “Whether it is on global warming or terrorism, he is all about cooperation and building alliances,” said the Indian official. Trump has sold his supporters on a blurry vision of bringing back a better, former version of the United States—though never making clear when that was—but Modi has no interest in preserving the past.
Although he rose to political power as a Hindu nationalist, Modi has become more of a secular technocrat in office, and as an early digital convert, he wants to turn India into a technological superpower. Unlike the new U.S. president, Modi is known for running a tightly-disciplined administration, with none of the chaos that has become an early trademark of Trump’s White House. Although Modi “can be blunt, he is not brash like Trump,” says the Indian official. And according to Chaudhuri, “Trump is not his kind of person.” If Trump and Bannon are hoping to lead some sort of global revolution, it is not a given that Modi would join in.