Political truths are like colours in the rainbow: they may be real, but they are seldom the whole truth. The whole truth is like light – colourless, and yet it’s all colours, seen and unseen.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly told the political leaders at a dinner party recently in New Delhi that he has good relations with the US President-elect Donald Trump, he was no doubt speaking a political truth.
Modi had just had a phone conversation with Trump. But then, that was not the whole truth.
The whole truth also meant that by hurrying to make a phone call to Trump within a day of the businessman-politician’s election victory, Modi was making up for lost time.
Evidently, Modi did not want his government to be seen as shockingly out of touch with ground reality on yet another front – this time around, in the country’s diplomacy and foreign policy arena.
The plain truth is that the Indian foreign-policy establishment made a horribly wrong assessment about the recent US elections.
The Indian foreign-policy establishment assessed that Hillary Clinton would walk away laughing with at least 300 electoral votes (when she needed only 270 to win the election).
She eventually secured 242 electoral votes.
The mystique of democratic elections anywhere would be the unpredictability of their outcome and the Modi government was not the only one to have gone wrong.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped to be the first foreign statesman to call on President Hillary Clinton at the White House in early February.
The Kremlin too was coming to terms with the dim prospect of dealing with her for the coming four-year period.
But the main difference in our case was that we wanted Hillary Clinton to win and simply refused to entertain the possibility of any other outcome in the American election.
Without doubt, Hillary Clinton would have been the best thing to happen to the “US-Indian defining partnership of the twenty-first century”.
After all, she was the chairperson of the India Caucus in the US Congress, she was unabashedly India friendly, and, most important, she was the charioteer of the US’ “pivot” strategy in Asia while she was state secretary in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
Again, we knew the ropes, as to how to get into the sanctum sanctorum of the Clinton Foundation – as well as any Gulf sheikh would have found out.
However, all that still didn’t add up to justify the colossal mistake we made in adamantly refusing to have anything to do with Trump’s campaign team.
Our reasoning was that if we were seen as touching base with the Trump camp at the primary stage even remotely, that might cause offence to Hillary Clinton.
Not a single functionary of the Indian establishment or a leader of repute or authority in the government called on Trump through all those tumultuous recent months since Trump managed to secure against all odds the Republican Party’s nomination and became a serious contender for the presidency.
If insider accounts are true, Modi himself, being a gifted politician himself, probably had a vague sense of disquiet about the wisdom of shutting out Trump from all contacts.
Conceivably, the reports he would have received through own private channels – Sangh Parivar activists in the Indian diaspora in America who enjoy direct access to him – was that the tide of national mood in the US was swinging and might increasingly favour Trump.
But then Modi’s aides probably convinced him that they knew American politics better than anyone else and that it is in national interests to put all the eggs in the Hillary Clinton basket.
In retrospect, why we had to be more loyal to Hillary Clinton than even Bill Clinton will remain simply incomprehensible.
Hillary Clinton herself always made it a point to call on Indian opposition leaders during her visits to India.
And any diplomatic mission is indeed expected to be in touch with all sections of the political spectrum in the host country. Our diplomats are not partisans in the host country’s politics.
Actually, India has an appalling record in reading the tea leaves in American politics. We made the very same mistake in 1992 and 2000 as well, when we had a closed mind vis-à-vis the candidacies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush respectively.
The then foreign secretary JN Dixit had to post-haste depute a senior official all the way from South Block to travel to Arkansas as soon as it came to be known that Bill Clinton had won the 1992 election.
In 2000, the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister late Brajesh Mishra had to rush to the US to seek help from his old friend Henry Kissinger to get through to former secretary of state James Baker III who was the master of ceremonies in Bush’s transition headquarters.
In the present case, again, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar landed in the US last Monday, probably with a similar unpleasant mission – to get through to someone, anyone, of consequence in Trump’s transition team in Manhattan.
This is all ludicrous to the extreme, because Trump is known to be a very affable man and is easily accessible.
Just ask Sagar Chordia and Atul Chordia of Panchshil Realty in Pune or Kalpesh Mehta of Tribeca Developers – Trump’s partners in real estate development business in India – how easily they could get through to the Trump Tower and snatch a photo-op with the big man despite all his preoccupations over picking his cabinet team.
A non-resident Indian in Chicago who recently bought property worth $17 million that belonged to Trump apparently extracted from the latter a promise to attend his “house-warming party”.
Why is it that our mandarins have a closed mind on American politics?
The short answer is that they have been dogmatic ideologues when it comes to the United States. The influence of the neoconservative ideologues on the Indian foreign-policy community is far too well-known.
Unsurprisingly, the Indian foreign policy establishment was not willing to countenance the thought that America could have anyone other than Hillary Clinton as president.
For them, the all-important, near-obsessive foreign-policy consideration in the US election has been about the fate of the US’ containment strategy against China.
The pivot strategy was conceived by Hillary Clinton, and our folks trusted that the strategy would flourish under her presidency and she would carry it forward to its logical conclusion, namely, by creating a solid alliance in the Asia-Pacific to isolate China, encircle it with unfriendly states, and to stymie its rise as global power.
They saw seamless possibilities of the Hillary Clinton presidency using India as a counter-weight to China.
They saw in the likely regional security paradigm a US-Japan-India axis at work at the very core, which in turn would also create the circumstances for India’s rise as a regional power, projecting its military power in what the Indian strategists fondly call the Indo-Pacific region.
The bottom line is that the Modi government needed a Hillary Clinton presidency to give ballast and credibility to its own China policies that aimed at negotiating with China ultimately from a position of strength.
A can of worms
Modi has comforted the political class with the assurance that there is no reason to apprehend any dramatic change in the US-Indian bilateral relations. That is, again, a political truth, albeit not the whole truth.
In his first major foreign-policy pronouncement after the election victory, Trump made a crisp announcement on Monday that “America First” is the leitmotif of his strategies abroad and that he intended to tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement on Day 1 of his presidency, which his predecessor had negotiated.
Now, anyone who is well-versed with the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific would know that the agreement was supposed to be at the very core of the US’ containment strategy against China.
Without it, US’ pivot strategy will unravel.
Coupled with the fact that Trump has not shown any interest whatsoever on the South China Sea issues and that his sole preoccupation with China is about engaging Beijing bilaterally to sort out the economic and trade issues in the Sino-American relationship, the Indian policymakers need to see the writing on the wall.
There is already talk that Trump may decide on the US seeking membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and participating in China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.
Simply put, the US is downgrading its alliance system in Asia and instead preparing to engage China bilaterally with a view to extract the optimal benefits for the American economy’s reconstruction, which Trump has again repeated on Monday to be the principal mission of his presidency.
On the other hand, the Modi government was emboldened to test China’s patience on many issues repeatedly through the past two years primarily due to the over-confidence that it was pillion-riding the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia.
An otherwise-senseless act of provocation to China such as scheduling the US ambassador’s visit to Tawang was almost entirely predicated on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be around for at least another four years to come to India’s aid if push comes to shove across the Himalayas.
Trump, on the contrary, is not in the business of making wasteful, futile interventions abroad unless America’s interests are directly threatened.
Another war of nerves will soon erupt with China if the Indian establishment pushes the envelope on the hugely sensitive issue of Tibet.
The establishment thinking in Delhi has been that time is ripe for India to play the so-called Tibet card against China.
Now, Trump will be the last person to take any interest over the Tibet issue. Unlike Obama or Hillary, he has shown no interest whatsoever in America’s “exceptionalism”. Nor is he known to have any messianic zeal to propagate human rights or democratic values in faraway lands.
With Ambassador Richard Verma due to be replaced shortly and Hillary Clinton’s political career ending, and on top of it with the neocons in retreat in crafting American foreign policies, the Indian establishment is in every sense holding a can of worms.
The entire ideological underpinning of the US-Indian relationship is threatening to fall apart.