Like others across the world, Indians are now waiting to learn what Donald Trump knows or values about their country. Outside of participating in one highly publicised and confusing event organised by the Indian-American Hindu community, he has not spoken about India with any substance or depth.
While many assumed he would be pro-India because of his anti-Muslim rhetoric, his recent phone call with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has in part shown his startling ignorance about India and has indicated that a Trump administration will simply continue the country’s confusing stance on Pakistan. Regardless, this is an opportunity for India to define and drive the India-US bilateral relationship. Until the Trump administration gets settled in and proves itself, US foreign policy will be in slight disarray, and even after that Trump won’t have a vision for the India-US partnership.
India must be the one that not just puts forward a vision and pushes for stronger economic and military collaboration, but also leads in areas of common multilateral importance, such as climate change. For most of its existence, the bilateral relationship between the two nations has been driven by high-minded rhetoric and big promises – most of which don’t get delivered. Indeed, the last joint statement between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi contained over 100 promises and commitments. It is also well known that over ten years after it was signed, the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement is yet to show any results.
Modi should put some of his famous pragmatism to work and pivot the US-India dialogue towards actionable policies and programs. While joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean are important, they are secondary to improving the quality of life of all Indians through strong economic growth, better schools and healthcare and a clean environment. From the US perspective, the growth of the Indian market for American products is also more important than joint military exercises or cyber security. To that end, there are some concrete policy initiatives that Prime Minister Modi can push that have the strong backing of the private sector, civil society and most US policy makers.
First, both nations should collaborate through joint investments, promotion and policy for the investment of next-generation technologies in India. Innovations like 3D printing, modern seed varieties and synthetic biology have a huge potential to create jobs and new industries in the country. India, however, lacks the research institutions and scientific bench for entrepreneurs in these fields to take full advantage of the opportunities here. The US and India can vastly increase the scope of the US-India Science & Technology Endowment Fund, as well as that of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and EXIM for guaranteeing certain private investments that build India’s research and commercialisation capabilities and jointly benefit American companies. For India to become a world leader in these new fields, it will need to invest today.
Second, the two nations must collaborate more in areas of national security and technology. India needs to move towards more advanced technology development and innovation, while the US needs new sources of sensitive technologies in the areas of defence, telecommunications and information technology. The US does not allow the purchase of many sensitive technologies from Chinese companies – giving India the opportunity to become a leading supplier to the US. The collaboration between Tata Advanced Systems and United Technologies on defence systems and the sale of telecom equipment in the US by Bangalore-based Tejas Networks demonstrates that India can create high-quality technical products for use by American companies and government agencies.
Third, both nations should create a financing and licensing facility around climate change technologies. Yes, it is true that Trump doesn’t believe that climate change is real, but if India pushes for a US-government guaranteed financing vehicle, it is more likely to materialise because these vehicles – such as the OPIC – have historically been very profitable for the US government.
In this case, the US must license as many technologies as possible to India to help reduce its emissions and switch to cleaner energy sources and more efficient energy systems. The US can provide ‘India-only’ licenses for these technologies wherein the intellectual property is owned by the Indian government for purposes of use in India while US-based organisations maintain those rights for the rest of the world. This is similar to the way that several venture capital arms of sovereign wealth funds, such as the Russian fund Rusnano, have set up their operations in emerging markets. It would help India source technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution while side-stepping intellectual property issues.
Fourth, India should push the USAID, American private philanthropies and corporate CSR efforts to focus on capacity building in key sectors of India. Already the USAID is moving its funding from more traditional funding for food aid towards new sectors in India. There are two areas where USAID and American organisations can have a big impact. First, by replicating programs similar to the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) across sectors such as education, healthcare, agriculture and energy. PHFI was created in partnership between the Indian government, Indian philanthropists and American foundations. Secondly, USAID and American NGO’s have developed a strong expertise in development, management systems and global networks that their Indian counterparts desperately need. In return, Indian NGO’s have much to teach their American counterparts about scale and low-cost operations.
Fifth, there is no country that can help India develop its startup ecosystems more than the US. Prime Minister Modi should use the convening power of his office – along with whatever interest is shown by the Trump administration – to engage more American philanthropists and investors to look at India and invest in the development of entrepreneurship ecosystems.
India has 52 cities with over 1 million residents, so simply having startups in Bangalore, Gurugram and Hyderabad is not nearly enough. In the US, cities as diverse as Cleveland and Albuquerque are pushing to be more startup friendly, and India’s smaller cities must do the same. By leveraging the tech community and the Indian diaspora, America’s development agenda for India can move towards entrepreneurship and innovation.
Prime Minister Modi has shown that he has a deep understanding and affection for the US. But we are entering a brave new world. While India-US relations would have been easy to predict under Secretary Clinton or a traditional Republican president, we really have little idea what Trump wants to do. And that is exactly why Modi must put his considerable skills to work to push the bilateral agenda hard and fast towards greater economic cooperation and joint impact. India’s role in impacting climate change and global economic stability is only going to grow, and for the first time in history, it can assert itself proactively and positively regarding the US. Let’s hope it takes advantage of this opportunity.
Nish Acharya is CEO of Citizence & The Equal Innovation Institute in Washington, DC and author of The India-US Partnership: $1 Trillion by 2030 published by the Oxford University Press.