- - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

President Trump may be in a hurry to overturn many measures of the previous Obama administration, but he appears to seek continuity of the increasingly close partnership America has developed with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, within five days of taking office, the new president called the prime minister to emphasize that desire.

It was by all accounts a courtesy call, but important in its symbolism, with the president hailing India as a true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world. According to a White House readout of the call, the two leaders discussed opportunities to strengthen the bilateral partnership in broad areas such as the economy and defense. They also resolved that their two countries would stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” in the global push against terrorism. Mr. Trump signed off with an invitation to Mr. Modi to visit the United States, and it is likely the prime minister will take him up on that invitation this spring.

President Obama made a similar call to Mr. Modi, on Jan. 19, a day before his term ended, when both the leaders discussed the progress they made on shared economic and security priorities, including recognition of India as a major partner of the U.S. in defense and in addressing the global challenge of climate change during his administration.

An early Modi-Trump meeting will sustain the momentum of closer bilateral relations. In a tweet following his phone call with Mr. Trump, the prime minister said he too had extended an invitation to the U.S. president to visit India. “Had a warm conversation with President Trump last evening,” Mr. Modi added. “President and I agreed to work closely in the coming days to further strengthen our bilateral ties.”

It has not been lost on Indian observers that the new president has appointed as many as six Indian-Americans to his administration. This includes his one-time fierce critic and first woman Indian-American governor of a U.S. state (South Carolina), Nikki Haley. Her appointment as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations makes her the first-ever Indian-American to serve at the Cabinet level in any U.S. administration and the first non-white female member of the Trump Cabinet.

The other five appointees are Uttam Dhillon, appointed special assistant to the president, where he will be part of the legal team led by White House Counsel Donald McGahn; Seema Verma (head of Medicaid and Medicare Services); Ajit Pai (head of the Federal Communications Commission); Preet Bharara (U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, with jurisdiction over Wall Street); and Raj Shah, who is part of the White House Communications team. During his campaign and afterward, Mr. Trump has lauded the 3.8 million-strong Indian diaspora in the United States for its talents and hard work.

At a charity reception hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition, during his campaign Mr. Trump exulted: “I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India; big, big fan, big, big fan. Let me start by saying right upfront that if I’m elected president, the Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House and I can guarantee you that.” It appears to us that the new president is as good as his word.

India is keen on moving swiftly to elevate its strategic partnership with the new U.S. administration, being one of the largest purchasers of American arms, and both countries also have agreed to expand their $100 billion worth of two-way trade five-fold in the near term.

There are challenges, however, given the nationalist and protectionist rhetoric driving his “America first” vision. While the president is restricting visas for citizens of seven Islamic countries in an understandable, if controversial, effort to keep terrorists from gaining access to the American homeland, what is more troubling is his apparent intent to tighten H-1B visas that he believes is facilitating the entry of foreign workers at the cost of deserving Americans. India is the world’s largest provider of information technology (IT) services, and 67 percent of its $130 billion IT business is accounted for by the U.S., where some 350,000 Indian engineers work, on H-1B visas, with both Indian and American tech companies. Indian professionals whose visas are due for renewal are understandably concerned about the implications of all this. India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies estimates that any rewriting of work visa rules to force cutbacks on outsourcing could cost Indian IT companies $400 million a year, along with large-scale job losses.

With no clearly defined foreign policy as yet from the Trump administration, India is waiting for firmer indications. It is evident that despite their mutual exuberance, both Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump will have a weighty agenda before them when they meet in Washington.

• Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.

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