Sometime next month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will welcome US President Donald Trump on his first state visit to India. Among the highlights of the Trump trip will be a sequel to the rapturous ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event organised in Houston, Texas, in September last year which saw the two heads of state walking hand-in-hand before a crowd of nearly 50,000 people of Indian origin. The next US presidential elections are just 10 months away.
While Trump’s domestic approval ratings remain high despite facing an impeachment in the US Senate, he needs all the help he can get. A rub-off from the Modi effect among the small but influential Indian-American community would be greatly welcomed. Some 45 per cent of the respondents feel that India’s relations with the US have improved under Trump, a dip of 8 percentage points from the previous survey in August 2019.
India’s tacit support for an embattled Trump might be tenuous in the bipartisanship stakes, but it is with good reason. Prime Minister Modi faces an uphill climb, with the Indian economy in slowdown and dipping foreign investments. An Indo-US trade deal is believed to be in the works and could restore India’s preferred trade status in the US and also ease concerns over New Delhi’s trade practices.
America remains India’s most significant foreign partner-with bilateral trade at $87.9 billion in 2019, the US is not only India’s largest trading partner but also one of its largest defence suppliers. It is too deeply grounded to be upset by kerfuffles like the US state department’s concerns over internet restrictions and detentions in J&K, or the disapproval over the abrupt cancellation of a meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee by foreign minister S. Jaishankar (it included a US lawmaker who had introduced a Congressional resolution calling for the lifting of curbs imposed on J&K after the scrapping of special status under Article 370). Indeed, explaining its stance on Kashmir to the world has been the government’s major foreign policy challenge over the past few months, even as it has kept Trump at bay on his frequent offers to mediate on Kashmir. Critics of the government’s Kashmir policy include Iran, Turkey and Malaysia.
All figures in %; DK/ CS: Don’t know/ can’t say
Next month also marks the first anniversary of the February 14 suicide bomb attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama which killed 30 troopers. The incident led to Indian retaliatory bombing of a terror camp in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa by IAF warplanes, a reprisal raid by PAF jets and an escalatory spiral that was halted only when Pakistan returned Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman whose jet had been shot down.
Relations with Islamabad are as bad as they were after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008, if not worse. Ties plunged further after August 5 when Islamabad expelled India’s envoy and recalled its high commissioner to New Delhi. Pakistan has kicked off a shrill campaign to draw attention to the Kashmir issue which has met with an underwhelming response given Islamabad’s own political and economic crises and it being ‘grey listed’ by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) global lens for failing to crack down on terrorist groups.
India’s stand that ‘talks and terror don’t go hand in hand’ is likely to be further buttressed by what seems like overwhelming public support for its Pakistan policy. Seventy two per cent of MOTN respondents are satisfied with the way the Modi government has handled relations with Pakistan under Imran Khan. Indeed, 38 per cent feel they have been handled rather well. And 59 per cent said ‘India should not have any bilateral talks with Pakistan unless there is a total end to cross-border terrorism’.
India has meanwhile stepped up efforts to engage diplomatically with China. Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping have defused tensions since the 72-day standoff at Doklam in Bhutan in 2017 by holding two informal summits. The first one in Wuhan and the second in Mahabalipuram last October, have signalled India’s belief that diplomacy is the only way to resolve the vexed boundary dispute with China.
The two militaries have met at the levels of army commanders ever since and set up hotlines to resolve border issues at their level and not let them escalate. Beijing, however, continues to pressure India at the behest of its close ally Pakistan. On January 16, the US, France, Russia and the UK jointly blocked a second attempt by China to raise Kashmir at the United Nations.
The public signalling between India and China, however, is largely positive. Thirty eight per cent respondents think that India’s relations with China have improved in the past five years. This score has gone down only by 3 percentage points from the previous MOTN survey, indicating that the government is largely steering a steady course on the external front.
Cross-border terrorism, at 24 per cent, remains the single-largest fear for a majority of respondents though this percentage has been on the decline. In the MOTN survey conducted in January 2017, cross-border terror was the number one concern for 44 per cent of respondents. This steady decline could be because there have been no major terror attacks since the February 14 attack, a rare feat for which the government’s zero tolerance policy can take full credit.
Even as it continues to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan, the worry on the security front is now internal. Close to half the respondents saw growing cases of violence inside India as the biggest threat to internal security. Combined with the scores for communal violence, caste violence, mob violence (cow-related or otherwise), close to 48 per cent of those surveyed see these as the biggest threats to internal security. Sixty-six percent respondents were worried about different manifestations of internal violence, indicating this to be the most serious challenge for the government.