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2016: Trump wins; India, US overcome ‘hesitations of history’

Donald Trump

    
Washington : Donald Trump’s bombastic run for president and his electoral triumph headlined much of 2016 that was also a “great year” for Indo-US ties as the two countries overcame “hesitations of history” to closely collaborate on key issues like defence, counter-terrorism and civil nuclear energy.

In a result that stunned the world, rank political outsider Trump was elected president crushing his strongly- favoured Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the November 8 poll.

Riding a wave of anti-establishment resentment in a closely-contested race to become the 45th US president, the 70-year-old billionaire businessman, who took to politics only 18 months ago, won with a comfortable margin.

He first beat 16 other Republican presidential hopefuls to clinch the nomination and then trumped Clinton.

Much of the year was headlined by controversies created by his bombastic style during one of the ugliest campaigns in US political history that also saw Trump making alleged anti- Muslim assertions and sexist remarks.

In the election season, allegations flew thick and fast from Trump being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women to Clinton’s email saga.

However, it was the email scandal that finally proved to be her nemesis as just days before the election when she was leading in most polls, the FBI announced reopening of its probe into the saga which swung the pendulum in Trump’s favour.

Though the FBI gave her a last-minute clean chit ahead of the polls, experts said it might have been too late by then.

Apart from the election, another issue that dominated the discourse were lone-wolf attacks and mass shootings, including the horrific Orlando gay nightclub shooting incident in which Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11.

Post-election, there was a massive spike in hate crimes and assaults on hijab-clad women which many blamed on Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

On the bilateral front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one among the top few world leaders with whom Trump spoke over the phone after his victory

By any standards it could be described as a “great year” for the Indo-US relationship.

It was a year in which Modi made a historic address to a joint session of the US Congress and met President Barack Obama as many as three times, twice in Washington DC.

The year gone by also saw the signing of the long-overdue logistics exchange agreement, US designating India as a major defence partner and playing an instrumental role in India becoming a member of the prestigious Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

If it would not have been for Chinese resistance, the icing on the cake could have been India’s membership to the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The US tried its best but was unable to cross the ‘Great Wall of China’.

The future of ties also look bright with Trump assuming power next month.

Trump himself has publicly said he is a fan of Modi and has praised the Prime Minister for taking steps for reviving the Indian economy and cutting bureaucratic red tape.

Given the fact that Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who made a quiet trip to Washington last month, was given rare access to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, it could be a strong indication that the India-US relationship under a Trump administration would continue to see an upward trajectory.

The bonhomie in ties that kicked off during the Clinton administration, got a big boost under the Bush administration with the civil nuclear deal and was propelled to a new level under the Obama administration.

“2016 was a great year for US-India ties,” Alyssa Ayres, a former state department official in the Obama administration, told PTI.

The White House used Modi’s words from his address to the Congress that India and US have “overcome the hesitations of history” to describe the relationship between the two countries in 2016.

“As Prime Minister Modi noted in his June 2016 address to Congress, India and the United States have ‘overcome the hesitations of history’ and ‘turned barriers into bridges of partnership’,” Emily Horne, a spokesperson of the National Security Council, told PTI.

“During the last year, we expanded our cooperation in areas such as defence, civil nuclear energy, and enhanced ties between our citizens that delivered tangible benefits to both nations,” she said when asked about the India-US relationship in 2016.

“In June, the United States recognised India as a Major Defense Partner. Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit this month underscored the United States’ commitment to elevating our defence cooperation even in the midst of our transition. The United States and India conducted six major military exercises in just the past year, while defence trade has now grown to USD 15 billion,” Horne said.

Also this year, Nuclear Power Corporation of India and Westinghouse began preparatory site work to build six nuclear reactors in India — the largest nuclear reactor deal in US history — that will provide electricity for 60 million Indian citizens, she noted.

Not only this, two-way travel for tourism, business, and education witnessed unprecedented growth, including more than one million travellers from India to the US, and 1.2 million from the US to India, she said.

“A record 166,000 Indian students are studying in the US, an increase of 25 percent from 2015,” Horne said.

Ayres said the culmination of the long-overdue logistics exchange agreement drew both countries further together on defence cooperation.

“PM Modi’s address to the joint meeting of the US Congress signaled the special respect Americans accord to India,” she said.

“Washington put its shoulder to the wheel to work for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership for India, China’s negative diplomacy notwithstanding. And the US response to India’s ‘surgical strikes’ of October indicated a changed playbook for times of crisis,” said Ayres, who is now a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, a top American think-tank.

“While 2017 could hold some surprises given the uncertainties of what a Trump administration may choose to emphasise, the year coming to a close will leave bilateral relations in a stronger position for the next US president to help take forward,” she said.

As the India-US relationship enters the Trump era, Rick Rossow from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a top American think-tank, said the two countries need to focus on maintaining recent momentum in strengthening their emerging security partnership.

“This has been a top-down drive at the Department of Defence, and will require active senior leadership going forward — cruise control will not work. We need to find more ways to turn it from theoretical cooperation to practical cooperation, which is the since most powerful ingredient to its sustainability,” Rossow said.

“On the economic front, we still have a fairly blank canvas. Lots of areas of small and medium cooperation, but fewer big ideas with momentum,” he said.

Observing that the India-US relationship is mature and multi-faceted, Aparna Pande from the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, said bilateral ties are at a level that it is not affected by politics in either country.

“However, India has to shed its shyness in forging an alliance and referring to the United States as a partner or ally. There are some trade issues that still remain unresolved. The diaspora relationship is a booster but it also increases expectations,” Pande said.

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