Trump and Modi have more social media followers than any leaders on earth. But what will they talk about in person?
Both are political outsiders who champion a muscular, country-first nationalism. They enjoy feverish support from their vote bases while their governments assail critics and ignore — or encourage — hostility toward minority groups.
A senior White House official briefing reporters ahead of the visit on Friday said that Trump has visited Mumbai in his business career and noted that the two men have more social media followers than any world leaders on earth, making sure to point out that Trump is slightly ahead of Modi.
But beyond the personalities, there are signs that the U.S.-India partnership — which grew closer under the Obama administration on issues such as climate change — could be headed for rougher waters.
When Trump withdrew from the Paris climate change agreement, he lashed out at India directly, accusing it of exploiting the deal to secure “billions and billions of dollars of foreign aid.”
Trump has vowed to curb trade deficits, a direct threat to India’s $150-billion outsourcing industry. And he has railed against the visa program that brings tens of thousands of Indian workers to the U.S. every year, saying companies should hire more Americans.
“On the major priorities on the Trump agenda, the things that he assumes his voters put him in office for, there’s not a lot of overlap with what India considers its tier-one interests,” said Richard Rossow, the Wadhwani chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
All this could make for a tepid first encounter between the two leaders during a visit that includes an afternoon meeting, a cocktail hour and a working dinner at the White House. Here are some of the issues that could arise, and some more difficult topics that both men might try to skirt:
India is not in Trump’s crosshairs like Mexico. But in April, Trump fired a warning shot by announcing a review of the H-1B visa program under which up to 65,000 skilled workers — many of them computer engineers from India — enter the U.S. annually.
Leading members of the Trump administration — including Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and chief strategist Steve Bannon — argue that the visas allow companies to hire lower-paid foreign workers instead of Americans.
In Congress, lawmakers from both parties are considering raising minimum salaries for H-1B workers and imposing other measures to protect American jobs. That has contributed to severe layoffs in the Indian outsourcing industry, adding to signs that India’s economic growth — Modi’s signature issue — is slackening.
Indians who have long viewed the U.S. as a destination for jobs and higher education worry that racial intolerance is growing under Trump. The February shooting death of an Indian man in suburban Kansas City by a white man who reportedly shouted “Get out of my country” prompted wall-to-wall media coverage here.
Still, analysts don’t expect Modi — a notorious glad-hander who famously bear-hugged Obama — to confront Trump over immigration.
“It would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at the Brookings India think tank in New Delhi.
White House officials do not expect a confrontation either. The official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity Friday said the administration is still reviewing the H-1B program, making any discussions of specific changes premature.
2. Terrorism and regional security
While India has been targeted by fundamentalist Islamist groups, it views rival Pakistan, not transnational terrorist networks like
Trump has made fighting Islamic State a priority, but India has not participated in the global military effort against the group. A few dozen Indians are reported to have joined the extremist network in Iraq and Syria, out of a Muslim population of more than 170 million.
As Trump weighs sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan, in part to battle Islamic State militants there, analysts say there is room for greater cooperation with India, which has helped train Afghan forces and provided development assistance while not deploying soldiers.
The Trump administration official speaking Friday praised India’s efforts in rebuilding Afghanistan’s institutions and promoting democracy, noting a $3-billion pledge of assistance to the country which the official said has generated good will among Afghan people.
The official said the White House expects to broaden other anti-terrorism initiatives during the visit, increasing existing cooperation in screening, Internet security, intelligence sharing and the designation of terrorist groups.
But Indian officials have long argued that the U.S. must end its financial support for Pakistan’s military — widely blamed for supporting Afghan insurgents — and Trump has shown little sign of abandoning that troublesome ally.
The U.S. outreach to India over the past two decades was based in part on an attempt to support a counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia. India has been alarmed to see China expand investments in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and other traditional allies.
But Trump’s flip-flops on China — first accusing Beijing of currency manipulation before seeking its help to contain North Korea — offer little comfort to India.
While India has sought to maintain cordial ties and expand trade with its much bigger neighbor, it has taken some more aggressive steps in recent months.
It boycotted a major summit Beijing hosted on its transnational Belt and Road Initiative, which includes building roads across Pakistani territory that India considers its own.
And it invited the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, to the northern state of Arunachal Pradesh in April over strong Chinese objections.
These were major moves from the Indian perspective, but analysts say they didn’t look that big from Washington.
“In D.C. they see that as small ball,” Rossow said. “It doesn’t get people that excited about India being a player on the field.”
4. Trade and defense
U.S. officials also appear close to selling India’s navy 22 unarmed Guardian drones, manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics, the first such purchase by a non-NATO country.
The White House would not confirm the drone sale Friday, citing a requirement that Congress be notified first. But the official called India’s defense modernization a major strategic goal, also calling such deals important to increasing domestic defense jobs. “A strong India is good for the U.S.” she said.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric, analysts say trade and defense ties with India — a major arms buyer — could continue to expand because of support from Congress and business leaders. U.S. and Indian officials say that deals such as the one struck by Lockheed Martin can benefit workers in both countries.
“There is an inherent tension between Trump’s vision of ‘America First’ and Prime Minister Modi’s idea of ‘Make in India,’ which aims to transform India into a global manufacturing hub,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Enlightened leadership — if it materializes — can take this tension and turn it into a win-win proposition.”
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Bengali reported from Mumbai and Bierman reported from Washington.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia
2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from a senior White House official.
This article was originally published at 10:35 a.m.
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