I was the first senior American official to visit Modi in New Delhi, shortly after his inauguration. Modi acknowledged his complicated history with the U.S. (he was denied a visa for a decade over concerns about his involvement in anti-Muslim violence when he was chief minister in Gujarat), but he was looking forward, self-assured about his leadership of India and the possibilities of U.S-India relations. He and Obama developed a cordial rapport. Security cooperation grew impressively; trade and investment, not so much. A rising China underscored the quiet logic of partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
Although “quiet logic” is not his forte on any issue, President Trump has continued the American investment in relations with India, significantly broadened defense partnership, and even rebranded the Obama-era rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region with a new “Indo-Pacific” strategy. His pugnacious approach to trade and immigration issues irritates Indians, but has not interrupted the broadly positive arc of the relationship.
Trump and Modi have gradually developed their own rapport, superficially similar in their grasp of political branding and strongman habits. Both are skilled in the business of political showmanship, with a keen eye for the vulnerabilities of established elites, and for the dark art of stoking nativist fires.
Beneath those surface similarities, however, they are very different people, leading two very different societies. Modi grew up in modest economic circumstances, helping his father sell tea on a railway platform in Gujarat. Trump was a child of economic privilege, his early business career propelled by his father’s wealth and connections. Modi rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the wellspring of India’s Hindu majoritarian ethos, and later its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), developing an insider’s ideological convictions. Trump stormed the Republican Party from the outside, less attached to political principle or ideology than to the rawer politics of grievance and resentment.
In their impact on their own societies, and on the future direction of U.S.-Indian partnership, Trump and Modi are raising some disquieting questions. After a resounding reelection last spring, Modi has struggled with India’s most severe economic slowdown in three decades. Lacking a compelling strategy for the economy, he has doubled down on the one set of issues for which the BJP has a very clear and unified vision: Hindu majoritarianism. With coercive force and scant regard for constitutional limits, Modi’s government has put its Hindu chauvinism on full display.
Soon after his reelection, Modi revoked the constitutionally protected autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and its top political leadership remains under house arrest more than six months later. His government has pushed a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims seeking refuge in India, and has fed tensions over disputed religious sites. Pressures against critical journalists and academics have increased. The BJP has run into political difficulties in state and local elections, but its national opposition, the Congress Party, is a shell of its former self, and the courts and civil society are on the defensive. The political turmoil has only added to India’s economic difficulties—and put a strain on the country’s relationship with the U.S.