India faces a difficult choice in the American presidential race. There seem to be sound reasons for supporting both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump. The problem is to balance their personal presidential credentials with their interest in India.
The organisation called Hindu Sena, for instance, holds pujas to help the controversial Republican candidate. “He’s the only man who can put an end to Islamic terrorism. He’s our hero,” the Sena’s Vishnu Gupta was quoted saying. “We are praying for Trump because he is the only one who can help mankind.” The Sena urges Indian-Americans to vote for Mr Trump whose opposition to Muslim immigration to the United States and rhetoric against the so-called Islamic State are applauded by some Hindu activists.
Mrs Clinton also has a claim on the public imagination for being the first woman to reach anywhere near the White House gates. She is a Democrat, and Democrats are perceived to be more sympathetic to Indian interests despite the evidence of tangible progress under George W. Bush.
A more particular reason is that she may have influenced her husband’s ultimately friendly policies. Bill Clinton’s first term as president was not marked by friendliness towards India. This changed after his wife’s two visits. Hillary and her daughter, Chelsea, spent three days in India out of a ten-day five-country tour. She also represented her husband at Mother Teresa’s funeral in Calcutta. Back home, she told the large and powerful American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin that she hoped to repeat the “extraordinary and memorable experience.”
Strobe Talbott, the first deputy secretary of state to visit India in 15 years, claimed “In all the 25 years that I’ve known her, I don’t think I have seen her more intellectually stimulated than after that trip.” He also believed that one reason why Mr Clinton hoped to go to India was “because his wife, the first lady, had been twice.” Inspired by her, he urged State Department officials to take a closer and more sympathetic look at India. This sparked off an energetic policy reappraisal, prompting the State Department and National Security Council to try to broaden contact in trade, investment, science and technology, and initiate a strategic dialogue. There was a coalescence of personal and public interest with the president saying he was looking forward to visiting India.
When Mr Clinton appointed Richard F. Celeste, a former Ohio governor, as ambassador to India, his wife said to him, “Promise me, Dick, that you will take him to India”. She wanted it as soon as possible. Like Mr Talbott, Mr Celeste also credited her for her husband’s belated interest in India. “I suspect she said something like, ‘You must visit India. You must get a feel for this diverse, exciting, challenging country.’ Ever since that moment, President Clinton has had a particular desire to come to India.”
Her enthusiasm prompted Mr Clinton to tell Inder Kumar Gujral when he visited the US as prime minister, “India has two ambassadors in the US, Mr Naresh Chandra and my wife!” If it hadn’t been for Mrs Clinton, the president and prime minister would have met cold. As Gujral recalled, Mrs Clinton “warmly insisted that all four of us (the two leaders and their spouses) must get together in New York” before the formal meeting. She invited him to a reception the evening before he met the president.
India needs energy, technical expertise, trade and investment, not charity. That is why it was shaming when Narendra Modi raised the subject of H-1B visas with Mr Obama. It amounted to begging for jobs for people our government has trained at great expense but whom our under-developed economy can’t accommodate. Mr Trump’s reservations about H-1B non-immigrant visas enabling American companies to employ highly-trained foreigners for a pittance in specialty occupations for a specified period might shock educated Indians into some sense of self-respect.
It makes one cringe to read that Indians grabbed 86 per cent of the H-1B visas issued in 2014 whereas China, which accounts for the third largest immigrant group in the US, after Mexico and India, uses only 5 per cent. The explanation is that while China has created domestic opportunities for its best talent, India squanders its energy in futile arguments over flags, beef and symbols of nationalism.
Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at California University, wrote in the Washington Post that “the most appealing feature of the H-1B programme to employers is that visa holders are de facto indentured servants…. Employers can underpay and overwork H-1Bs at will, without fear of the workers’ moving to another firm.” He compared “these firms of the new economy” with “the old economy of two hundred years ago – when indentured servitude was in vogue.”
There are two other reasons for not regarding Mr Trump as an unmitigated disaster. First, without nursing romantic notions about Indian civilisation, he sees this country as a stabilising force in Asia. Secondly, unlike any other foreign leader, the 69-year-old real estate billionaire has put his money on India. As a politician, he might gamble with his country’s fate. As a shrewd businessman, he won’t risk his business assets. Although he hasn’t invested his own funds, two ambitious projects through licensees mean he has invested his reputation.
Mr Trump recognises the responsibility that goes with India’s size, population, stable democracy and economic potential. Calling nuclear-armed Pakistan “probably the most dangerous country in the world”, he described India as “the check to Pakistan … They have their own nukes and have a very powerful army.” It’s not necessary for India to toe Mr Trump’s harder line on China but that, too, can mean playing a positive role in holding the peace in Asia.
The main reason why he will be good for India is that he is a stakeholder in our prosperity. “It has been my desire for many years to be involved in a great project in Mumbai, and it is my honour to bring the Trump lifestyles to the citizens of this truly global metropolis,” he said. “I have big jobs going up in India … India is doing great.” He wants to capitalise on his brand in India. In August 2012, Panchshil Realty announced the Trump Towers Pune luxury residential property. Still under construction, the project features “two striking glass façade towers of 23 storeys each, offering 46 spectacular single-floor residences.”
The Lodha Group launched Trump Tower Mumbai, an 800-foot 75-storey skyscraper in Mumbai’s Worli district, in 2014. The gold and glass three- and four-bedroom apartments of over 2,000 square feet each with indoor jacuzzis, Poggenpohl kitchen cabinets and automatic toilets cost $1.6 million and more. Tribeca Developers, representing Mr Trump here, claims he and his sons are “extremely bullish on India” and plan to expand to many more Indian cities.
It’s not an easy choice between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump. To adapt Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum, India has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. They must be furthered. Which candidate would help most?