Ever since taking office, President Trump has been making enemies out of allies and friends out of autocrats. He labeled poor African countries “shitholes,” started a trade war with China, called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak” and trashed the European Union. Most recently, after bashing NATO, he accused Germany of being “held captive” by Russia — before launching a bizarre performance where he himself seemed captive by the charms of President Vladimir Putin as he vigorously defended Russia at the expense of America’s own intelligence agencies.
But India has somehow escaped both the 45th president’s wrath and his oddly placed adulation. Its top diplomat here, Navtej Sarna, has the fortune of representing the world’s largest democracy on Embassy Row at a time of unusually warm — and refreshingly normal — ties between Washington and New Delhi.
“It’s a unique privilege to be India’s ambassador to the United States, because India is so well-regarded here,” Sarna told us proudly.
It’s not all thanks to Trump, obviously, but the honeymoon between the second- and third-most populous nations on Earth has clearly intensified since his inauguration.
“Our relations have been consistently improving for the last two decades,” Sarna said in an interview. “The administration here may have changed, but everyone seems to agree on India’s strategic importance — our fundamental affinities — and the economic, scientific and technological possibilities for mutual advantage, not to mention the growing Indian diaspora in the United States. We have very strong, bipartisan support for that relationship on the Hill.”
But the ties go far beyond Beltway politics, encompassing the kind of relationship with which Trump is most familiar: business. According to a September 2017 report in Bloomberg, India now has the most construction projects with Trump licensing deals of any country outside the U.S. itself, including a 75-story Trump skyscraper in Mumbai. Furthermore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first foreign leaders to visit Trump after his January 2017 inauguration; Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, then led a November 2017 business delegation to India.
Sarna, a 60-year-old career diplomat, plans to stay in Washington until the end of 2018. A former high commissioner in London and ambassador to Israel from 2008 to 2012, he came here in November 2016 — but because of a fluke in scheduling, he only became India’s envoy to the United States during the last 48 hours of the Obama administration.
“I presented my credentials in a rather unique manner,” he recalled. “We arrived well in time to have credentials for President Obama, but somehow in the last two months of his tenure, we could not get a window. However, we had to be accredited just before Trump’s inauguration; otherwise we could not attend. So we were accredited by executive order of President Obama, and that enabled me and 13 other ambassadors to attend the inauguration ceremony of President Trump, who then gave each of us a photo opportunity with him.”
For Sarna, this latest assignment is a return to Washington, where he served as minister counselor for press affairs at the Indian Embassy from 1998 to 2002.
“Each capital is unique, but Washington provides a tremendously large canvas on which to operate, whether you’re working with the administration, or on the Hill or with industry or media. There’s a rich cultural life here, too.”
The same could be said of Sarna, who was recently seen meditating on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol as part of the U.S.-wide “First International Day of Yoga” organized by the embassy. This veteran diplomat also moonlights as an author (see “From HIV/AIDS Research to Fiction Writing, Indian Couple Defies Convention” in the August 2017 issue).
His books include: “Indians at Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale,” about an Indian hospice in the Holy City established centuries ago; “The Exile,” a novel about the last Maharaja of Punjab whose end came in a cheap hotel room in Paris; a 2016 book of essays on authors and “the writerly life”; and “Folk Tales of Poland,” which he wrote in 1991 following his posting in Warsaw. He’s even dabbled in romance with the 2003 novel “We Weren’t Lovers Like That,” which follows the life of a 40-year-old man whose wife leaves him for another man, forcing him to contemplate reclaiming a long-lost love.
Sarna is unique in other respects as well. Asked if he’s India’s first Sikh ambassador in Washington, he quipped: “I don’t know, but I’m certainly the first with a turban.”
Sarna is ethnically Punjabi, but spent most of his childhood in Delhi and in Dehradun, a town in the hills. Following his university education in the capital, he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1980 and was immediately posted to Moscow. Then came assignments in Poland and the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan. He also served as an arms control counselor in Geneva and was later posted to the Indian Embassy in Iran as counselor. Before his current posting in Washington, Sarna also served as spokesman for the Foreign Office in Delhi.
“I agree that two decades ago, our relationship did go up and down, and was episodic,” Sarna told us. “But since the end of the Cold War, there’s been a greater appreciation of India as a democracy — one which has not only survived despite its really unique diversity, but one that has actually thrived and overcome many challenges.”
It definitely wasn’t always smooth sailing between the United States and India, which has 1.3 billion people and will likely overtake China in 2022 as the world’s most populous nation.
A senior Indian official acknowledged as much at the prestigious 2nd India-U.S. Forum in New Delhi this past April, when he said: “Indians have very positive attitudes toward the U.S. today. There’s virtually no government agency which doesn’t talk to the other side. We have much easier conversations now. A gathering like this would not have happened 10 years ago — maybe not even five years ago.”
Fred Kempe, CEO of the Atlantic Council, says the United States and India now enjoy “the warmest relations we’ve ever had.”
“There were 3,000 Indians in the United States when then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the U.S. in 1949, and 3.3 million at the time of Prime Minister Modi’s election —and probably more than that now,” noted Kempe in opening the Delhi forum. “That just changes the whole texture of the relationship. President Trump has been very positive since his election and has repeatedly stressed the importance of bilateral ties.”
The Threat of ‘America First’
But Trump also has repeatedly stressed the importance of his “America First” agenda, particularly when it comes to trade and immigration — two areas that strike at the heart of the U.S.-India relationship.
Trump has vowed to crack down on the 85,000 H-1B visas given to skilled foreign workers each year; the overwhelming majority go to Indians in the tech sector. Silicon Valley says H-1B visas bring in talent that keeps America at the forefront of global innovation — and that there aren’t enough qualified Americans to fill these high-skill jobs. (Studies have confirmed there is a large shortage of American workers trained in high-demand STEM jobs.)
Trump vehemently disagrees. He says the H-1B program is rife with abuse (many experts agree) and that tech companies take advantage of it to recruit low-wage, entry-level workers to boost profits at the expense of American jobs. The president wants to force companies to prioritize the hiring of Americans; lower the cap and duration of H-1B visas; rescind temporary work permits for H-1B spouses; and distribute the visas based on merit, not by lottery (also see “Trump Looks to Overhaul H-1B Visa System for Skilled Foreign Workers” in the September 2017 issue).
Indian IT companies, which have outsourced hundreds of thousands of Indian software engineers and computer programmers to the U.S., have been particularly hard hit. The IT sector and related industries employ about 10 million people in India, according to a March 12, 2018, article in Deutsche Welle.
So far, the Indian government has not forcefully raised the issue with the Trump administration, opting instead to quietly highlight the contributions that Indian workers have made to the U.S. economy.
Sarna shied away from directly commenting on Trump’s anti-immigrant bluster, even though Indians now comprise the largest single group of new immigrants to the United States — more numerous than Mexicans or Chinese. In fact, according to University of Pennsylvania political science professor Devesh Kapur, Indian American households now have the single-highest income level of any group in the country — more than twice as high as the general U.S. population.
“Everything that happens impacts other relationships,” said the ambassador. “We have a very big diaspora community, so naturally we would hope that any changes that come take into account the tremendous contributions made by highly skilled Indian professionals coming to the U.S., and the role they’ve played in helping make U.S. companies globally competitive.”
Sarna said his country and the United States share fundamental values, including a strong civil society and freedom of the press. In addition, India under Modi has been very pro-business and India’s tech savvy has benefited both nations.
“One of the prime minister’s flagship programs is called Skill India. Another is Start-Up India. Today, if you visit Bangalore or Hyderabad, you’ll see thousands of people working on startups in a new ecosystem that’s being created. These are the problem-solvers of tomorrow,” he said, adding that “India’s transformational reforms and its ability to contribute highly skilled professionals [to the U.S. economy] have all added up.”
To that end, Sarna said he’s optimistic about prospects for U.S.-India trade, despite the huge tariffs the Trump administration has slapped against the European Union, China and other trade partners in the wake of rising protectionist sentiment at home.
“We are keeping our eye on the ball. In the last year, we actually increased our trade with the U.S. to $126 billion. We have reduced the balance of trade, which was in our favor, by about 5.7 percent. We have orders for hundreds of airplanes from U.S. companies, which will reduce this balance further,” he said, noting that India also plans to spend about $4 billion a year on U.S. oil and gas imports.
“These major purchases will take care of the trade balance,” he said. “We are now in constant touch between our people and theirs to resolve any remaining issues of market access.”
Nevertheless, India recently joined the EU and other countries in imposing retaliatory tariffs on the U.S. in response to Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. The amount, however — $240 million — is far less than the billion-dollar levies China and the EU have slapped on the U.S.
Like all of America’s trading partners, India is treading carefully when it comes to Trump. One Indian official, speaking at the recent inauguration of the D.C. office of Indian think tank CUTS International, said India, like other countries, needs to weather the Trump-related turbulence while promoting open-market principles.
“Hopefully we’ll ride out the current attitude toward trade,” said Subhash Chandra Garg, secretary of the Department of Economic Affairs within India’s Ministry of Finance. “But in the medium run, it’s up to countries like India to sustain an open global trading environment. The fact is that the Indo-Pacific will continue to be the world’s economic center of gravity for a very long time. We talk about this being the Asian century, but strictly speaking, it’s the ‘Asian-Pacific Century.’ Therefore, India has to be positioned to contribute to and take advantage of this most dynamic place in the world economy.”
There is little doubt that India already boasts one of the most dynamic economies in the world. This year, the ambassador said, India’s economy will grow 7.3 percent, reaching $3 trillion by 2025. India, in fact, recently beat France to become the world’s sixth-largest economy, registering a GDP of $2.6 trillion at the end of last year.
Narendra Modi was voted into office in 2014 on an ambitious platform of overhauling India’s vibrant but structurally troubled economy. Among other things, he pledged to cut India’s notorious red tape; loosen restrictions on foreign direct investment; privatize state entities; rein in costly subsidies; tackle corruption; help the poor; and deliver jobs to the country’s young masses.
Modi’s record has been mixed. On the one hand, he’s presided over stunning economic growth, including a high of 7.9 percent in 2015. He instituted a nationwide sales tax to replace a byzantine system of local taxes; created a more business-friendly environment; attracted record foreign investment (albeit from a low base); overhauled archaic bankruptcy laws; invested in infrastructure; and jumpstarted high-profile projects like Clean India, which shames rural Indians for defecating out in the open and aims to install millions of toilets across the country.
But Modi has shied away from unpopular reforms such as revamping the country’s rigid labor laws or making land acquisition easier for businesses. Meanwhile, his overnight ban in 2016 on high-value bank notes (which constituted nearly 90 percent of the cash in circulation) to curb the country’s illicit black economy led to widespread chaos and pain for ordinary Indians and small businesses.
More recently, Modi has suggested boosting spending on health care, rural jobs and farm subsidies — moves that, while politically expedient, threaten to blow a hole in the country’s already-fragile finances.
Despite criticism that Modi hasn’t lived up to his economic promises, his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remains popular heading into the prime minister’s re-election bid next year.
The current debate over Modi’s economic achievements is a far cry from the debate that raged during his first campaign in 2014, when the Hindu nationalist was criticized for looking the other way as Hindu extremists slaughtered hundreds of Muslims in communal violence that rocked Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time.
In fact, before his election, Modi was not even welcome in the United States; he was denied a U.S. visa for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Many feared that Modi would stoke Hindu nationalism once in office, but he has largely stuck to economic issues, although he has occasionally bowed to extremist pressures. Recently, he slapped new restrictions on cattle purchases in deference to Hindus’ reverence for cows, threatening the livelihoods of Muslim meat traders.
Since the BJP’s election in 2014, there has been a rise in Hindu nationalism that has exposed a culture of hate toward Muslims and other minorities, like the Dalit caste. In recent years, the country’s 180 million Muslims — who make up about 15 percent of the population — have increasingly faced discrimination and hate crimes such as lynchings and mob attacks. Some worry that if the economy doesn’t pick up ahead of Modi’s re-election campaign next year, he’ll revert to stirring up communal tensions as a way of energizing his Hindu base.
Beneath the Bright Spots, a Darker Underbelly
The longstanding rift between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority is just one of the deeply rooted problems that percolate beneath the surface of this South Asian success story.
India is a dichotomy of forward-thinking progress and stubbornly regressive attitudes. Alongside its dramatic democratic and economic gains is an uglier side of Indian politics and traditions, from its discriminatory caste system to its treatment of women to its glaring poverty.
There is no doubt that India’s fast-paced development has lifted millions out of poverty. But it’s also left millions behind. Today, in exploding cities like Delhi, garbage-strewn slums stand in stark contrast to the gleaming skyscrapers that symbolize the country’s yawning inequality gap. Roughly 60 percent of India’s population lives on less than $3.10 a day, according to the World Bank. And Oxfam notes that the richest 10 percent of the country control 80 percent of its wealth.
“Another way to look at it: In India, the wealth of 16 people is equal to the wealth of 600 million people,” wrote Moni Basu in an October 2017 CNN report. “One India boasts billionaires and brainiacs, nuclear bombs, tech and democracy.” In the “other” India, Basu writes, “almost 75% still lives in villages and leads a hardscrabble life of labor; only 11% owns a refrigerator; 35% cannot read and write.”
Meanwhile, people of all stripes are choking on India’s runaway growth, literally. The World Health Organization now ranks Delhi as the most polluted megacity on the planet (Mumbai came in fourth). Air tainted by car exhaust, factory emissions and the illegal burning of crops has forced flight cancelations, shut down schools and was linked to up to 2.5 million deaths in 2015. It has even turned the white marble walls of the Taj Mahal green.
Climate change has exacerbated the country’s extreme weather patterns, including heat waves that have propelled temperatures in India to reach 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the government tries to manage the negative byproducts of rapid development, its progress has been hampered by patriarchal beliefs and age-old hatreds.
Despite India’s march toward modernity, it is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls. The country’s National Crime Records Bureau says a rape occurs at least every 20 minutes. In 2012, the gang rape and fatal beating of a 23-year-old woman on a private bus in Delhi stirred global outrage, as thousands protested the country’s treatment of women.
Despite vows to fast-track rape investigations, cases rarely lead to a conviction and sexual assault remains underreported. Moreover, a growing number of attacks involve children, including one girl as young as 7 years old who was recently raped and left to die with her throat slit open.
In another gruesome incident, a group of 17 men — ranging in age from 23 to 66 — is accused of repeatedly raping and molesting an 11-year-old girl over the course of several months.
“An entire community got together to rape a child. I cannot even fathom the depravity and horror of this act,” Indian journalist Rohini Singh lamented on Twitter.
Modi has increased jail sentences for rapists and introduced the death penalty for those convicted of raping children under the age of 12, but the country’s courts are backlogged and prosecution is spotty at best. Some have even taken justice into their own hands — with deadly results. The government is fighting a wave of mob attacks fueled by false rumors about child kidnappers spread by WhatsApp.
Child rape has even been used as a religious weapon. In January, an 8-year-old girl who belonged to a nomadic Muslim tribe was held hostage in an Indian temple for days, gang raped and murdered to scare the nomads away. Disgusted protesters of all faiths fanned out across the country — yet right-wing Hindu nationalists in the community actually protested in support of the eight Hindu men arrested for the grisly crime.
“Obviously, these issues pose dangers for India itself as a liberal democracy, and the Modi government’s inability to control extremist elements, such as the cow vigilantes, in India is troubling,” Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told India Abroad in a July interview.
“For the moment, India’s well-wishers in Washington are hoping that these are all aberrations,” the Mumbai-born Tellis said. “But if they represent an illiberalism that makes India look similar to Pakistan or China, the difficulties of sustaining strong bilateral ties, even in a Trump administration that couldn’t care less about liberal values, will increase substantially.”
Pakistan: Perennial Threat
So far, that hasn’t happened. In fact, one reason U.S. ties with India have dramatically improved under Trump is the president’s antipathy toward India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan. The two nuclear powers have been at odds ever since Britain partitioned the subcontinent in 1947. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought three major wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Relations remain hostile in the wake of sporadic terrorist attacks, cross-border raids and violent flare-ups.
Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States was firmly aligned with Pakistan, while India generally sided with the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, Washington gave the Pakistanis funding and weapons to help it train the mujahedeen fighters who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. But in 1990, after the U.S. determined that Pakistan had a nuclear device, it cut off military and economic aid. That aid resumed after 9/11, when Washington urged Pakistan to join the “war on terror” in Afghanistan — but relations again took a nosedive following the Obama administration’s raid on Pakistani soil that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Relations have continued to take a turn for the worse under Trump. Back in January, the White House suspended $255 million in U.S. military aid to Islamabad, hours after Trump tweeted that “the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Yet all this should be cause for concern, writes Charles Tiefer in a Jan. 2 article in Forbes titled “Beware Trump’s Clumsy Tilt Against Pakistan Toward Modi’s India.”
“Frankly, Trump could drive Pakistan away from its warm Cold War relationship with America, toward full service to the Chinese,” he warned. “The Chinese want, and are getting, important ports for their expanding navy to use in the Indian Ocean, as well as economic ties. And, Pakistan can make it difficult logistically to support the American mission in Afghanistan.”
More important, Tiefer warns, “Pakistan has a massive nuclear arsenal. In coming years, it may have the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Too much Trump tilting against Pakistan and towards Modi’s BJP India feeds the potential onset of paranoia that tinges Pakistani nationalist elements in the population, the military and the ISI (intelligence apparatus).”
Sarna said the Trump administration has indeed issued “some really important statements” and taken a tough stance against Pakistan as part of its South Asia strategy — for good reason.
“There is an expectation, particularly as part of efforts to resolve the situation in Afghanistan, that Pakistan must come down on all sanctuaries of terrorism on territory under its control,” he said.
“Pakistan needs to do much,” Sarna continued. “When our prime minister came to power in 2014, he started off with an invitation to his swearing-in to all leaders, including Pakistan. He made several other gestures to foster dialogue. He also went to Pakistan to attend a function at the house of the prime minister. Unfortunately, every such gesture has been reciprocated with a terrorist attack. It is quite clear that terrorism and dialogue cannot be happening at the same time. So we will continue to work on our counterterrorism and look for international cooperation.”
On that subject, Sarna appears to be particularly passionate.
“For us, cooperation in counterterrorism is a very important aspect of the U.S.-India relationship,” he told us. “Terrorist organizations are known to morph from one to another. They have deep connections in funding, training and intelligence sharing. It’s very important that India and the U.S. — and for that matter, Israel — forge a common front against terrorism.”
James Carafano, vice president of national security and foreign policy at the hawkish Heritage Foundation, agrees — and argues that the U.S. hasn’t gone far enough to strengthen ties with a natural ally in a volatile part of the world.
“America is serious about the notion of a strategic partnership with India,” said Carafano, speaking at the India-U.S. Forum. “I don’t think [National Security Advisor John] Bolton or [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo were hired to rewrite foreign policy. These guys were brought in to move on Trump time. That’s good, because if anything needs Trump time, it’s the U.S.-India relationship. We are simply moving too slow.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.