What Donald Trump's Presidency Means For India
Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law. He has taught at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law since 1965. Nanda is past president of the World Jurist Association, former honorary vice president of the American Society of International Law and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights.
On a recent visit in India to lecture at the prestigious Indian Law Institute in New Delhi, I was struck by the widespread sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the new U.S. administration’s foreign policy.
Notwithstanding that my topic was “International Human Rights and the Environment,” questions from the audience — students, lawyers and judges — were mostly about President Donald Trump and his first several weeks in the White House.
These questions included: What is the future of India-U.S. relations under the Trump presidency? Will Trump value a strong, independent India? How will his economic, trade and immigration policies – especially the “America First” promise, visa changes, and tightening immigration rules — affect the Indian IT industry and the number of Indian students pursuing education in American universities?
The Trump administration did inherit strong relations with India, nurtured by three former presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The countries’ bilateral relations cover a wide range of sectors, including trade and investment, defense, energy and environment, education, space technology, health, cybersecurity, and agriculture. I was told that for Indian political leaders, uncertainty about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under Trump was somewhat tempered by the confirmation of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and James Mattis as defense secretary.
Four days after his inauguration, President Trump called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, while the official statements issued after the conversation mentioned no specifics, according to a White House statement Trump considers India a “true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world.” And Modi tweeted that he had a “warm conversation” with Trump and they had “agreed to work closely in the coming days to further strengthen our bilateral ties.” They both invited each other for state visits. Trump and Modi reportedly discussed security in South and Central Asia and resolved to “stand shoulder to shoulder in the global fight against terrorism,” in addition to opportunities to strengthen their partnership on defense and the economy.
Discussions are also taking place between Indian government officials and their counterparts in the Trump administration, aimed at exploring measures to further strengthen political, economic and defense relations between the two countries.
However, the Trump administration’s proposed restrictions on the H-1B visa program has rattled the $150 billion technology sector, which is vital for the country’s economy. Despite the assertions by tech companies that they are re-positioning their business models, the change is likely to adversely affect major Indian tech players, such as Infosys, Tata Consulting, Wipro, and Cognizant.
H-1B is a non-immigrant visa for skilled workers in specialty occupations such as IT and medicine, and is limited for a maximum of six years. Indians get a large percentage of these visas each year. The prevailing sentiment is that H-1B visas are “abused” as many U.S. companies contract out jobs to consulting firms in India that bring in lower-paid workers and it often becomes a path to U.S. citizenship. Thus, there is bipartisan support in the U.S. for H-1B reform.
But when two congressional delegations visiting India during the congressional break met Modi this past Tuesday, he indicated India’s discomfort with the administration’s intent to curb H-1B visas, urging the U.S. to take a “reflective, balanced and far-sighted” perspective on the movement of skilled professionals.
I met two Indian students who were accepted for graduate studies, one in engineering at Purdue and the other for an MBA at Carnegie Melon. Both are now applying to European universities instead, wary of possible restrictions by the Trump administration on job opportunities for outsiders. “The situation is unpredictable and I can’t take chances,” said the engineering student.
Strengthening of economic relations between India and the U.S. is obviously in our common interest. Perhaps even more important is our strategic partnership to ensure regional stability, especially in light of India’s tough neighbors, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The relationship should be treated with respect.