To say that 2020, as a year, has been rather eventful would be criminally underselling the catastrophe that it truly was. The year saw the arrival of novel technological bypasses – in the form of Zoom funerals and digital podiums – that mankind perhaps never did know was possible. But most of all, the world laid awake as it saw, in a single year, the simultaneous vindication and fall of the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald Trump.
The beginning of the year saw the impeachment trial of Donald Trump at the US Senate on January 16, nearly a month after he was impeached in December last year. The Trump administration’s defence and his subsequent acquittal were seen by many as a vindication of the charges against the President (“Surely, he must be here to stay”) – but by the US Presidential elections near the end of the year, Trump had already dramatically lost to his Democrat opponent, Joe Biden.
As Trump, who isn’t known to have the most, let’s just say, rational Twitter account around, swivelled in his highs and lows with allied countries – so too did bilateral relations and geopolitics across the globe.
India was no exception. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the beginning of the year, made no falsification of the fact that he openly favoured Trump and would very much like him to remain the President of the United States (“Aabki baar, Trump sarkar”).
Even as the year progressed, the two went into unprecedented cooperation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies from both countries collaborated to expand global supplies of critical medicines and are cooperating on vaccine development.
However, as the date for the presidential elections inched closer, India’s premier stopped dropping any explicit hints for endorsing either of the presidential candidates. In an era of bitter political divide during an election year, India was possibly among the few countries that attracted bipartisan support in the US.
Even with Biden taking charge of the White House, it is expected that India-US relations will remain robust as ever, judging by both the countries’ commitments to maintain strong ties.
On February 24-25, 2020, US President Donald Trump, in his inaugural visit with his family to India, was greeted by a gigantic crowd of over one lakh people at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad.
A giant billboard featuring Trump, First Lady Melania and Prime Minister Modi greeted the couple with a message 'Grand welcome of India's best friend..’
It’s important to remember that this was the time that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic outbreak was just picking up steam globally, and already spreading like a wildfire in many areas.
“I present to you, my friend… Donald Trump,” a visibly ecstatic Modi, in all his theatrical fanfare, declared, “Namaste Trump!”
To many, perhaps that sight of the visible warmth in the Modi-Trump relations was the highlight of the show, and a sign for the things to come.
The event turned out to be a celebration of ‘Brand India’, at a time when violent communal riots were also breaking out in the northeastern parts of the national capital. And the optics of the very public ‘bromance’ between the two global leaders, in a sea of the extravagant gala, found several iffy critics.
Trade has been one of the areas where the US-India relations have repeatedly found themselves strained.
Trump, forcefully pursuing his 'America First’ policy, had previously described India as a "tariff king" for imposing "tremendously high" tariffs on American products. Throughout the year, he often voiced his concern over US-India trade relations.
"We're not treated very well by India," an AP report had cited the US president as saying.
India demands exemption from high duties imposed by the US on certain steel and aluminium products, resumption of export benefits to certain domestic products under their Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), greater market access for its products from sectors including agriculture, automobile, auto components and engineering.
On the other hand, the US wants greater market access for its farm and manufacturing products, dairy items and medical devices, and cut on import duties on some ICT products. The US has also raised concerns over high trade deficit with India which was USD 16.9 billion in 2018-19
Despite that, Trump has insisted that his relationships with Prime Minister Modi remain robust as ever, and that the US remains the top trading partner for India in terms of trade in goods and services, followed by China.
The ‘threat’ from Beijing
That brings us to… China. In the face of the standing foreign threat, India and the US have found themselves bolstering defence ties with each other in preparation.
The US, which has championed a hard line on Beijing, has repeatedly engaged in discussions with India on how “free nations” can work together to thwart “threats” posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
At another time, India might have complained about the US presence in the Indian Ocean. Today, it doesn't want the US to leave. New Delhi has come around to seeing greater US involvement in India's backyard as offering a better alternative to China.
India has banned Chinese apps including TikTok but has voiced hope for stable relations with Beijing, even after 20 Indian troops and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in the June clash in the Himalayas.
Championing the developments from their respective countries were Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, whose shared concern for China led to the fortification of closer ties between each other.
The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region in the wake of China's increasing military muscle-flexing has become a major talking point among leading global powers.
India and the U.S. signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), with which the two countries have inked all the all four foundational agreements to bolster defence ties.
The two countries also participated in the 2+2 quadrilateral ministerial dialogue, where they discussed bilateral defence ties and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, amidst China flexing its muscles in the strategic region.
According to the US’ Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Laura Stone, Trump and Modi view Asia through a similar lens, which is reflective of their common vision for the Indo-Pacific.
The challenge India faces on its northern border has underscored even further the importance that Prime Minister Modi put in maintaining strong ties with strategic partners and friends.
The U.S.-India relationship is expected to touch new heights in 2021 under the presidency of Joe Biden, who is known to be a strong proponent of closer India-U.S. ties since his days as a Democratic senator in the 1970s and played a key role in getting the approval of the Senate for the landmark bilateral civil nuclear deal in 2008.
Biden, currently the president-elect, who defeated incumbent Trump near the end of the year in a bitterly-fought presidential election, has spoken about his vision for working closely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in bilateral partnership as well as on standing with India in facing threats in the region.
His running mate Kamala Harris, who is of Indian origin, scripted history when she became the first-ever woman vice president-elect of the country.
Political spectators of all hues are currently looking towards developments next year to comprehend the next height where Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes relationships with the US to.
(With photos and inputs from agencies)