India reacted with equanimity to Donald Trump’s election as US president. Though astonished, New Delhi’s establishment was comforted that India’s relations with Washington have improved steadily — barring a few hiccups — for two decades, through both Republican and Democratic administrations.
As a candidate, Mr Trump had also actively courted Indian-American voters, most memorably at a Bollywood-themed political rally, where he declared “I love Hindu” (sic) and promised the US and India would be “best friends” under his leadership.
But Indian equanimity has morphed into trepidation since last week’s shooting of two Indian computer engineers at a Kansas bar allegedly by a 51-year-old US navy veteran. The suspect reportedly told the men “get out of my country” before he fired, killing one, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has rejected any link between the attack on the Indian engineers — both employees of Garmin, the Kansas-based GPS maker — with Mr Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, calling such suggestions “absurd”.
But the link does not seem at all absurd in India, which sends several hundred thousand of its citizens to the US every year to study and work, as well as 1m tourists. In an emotional press conference at Garmin’s headquarters, Sunayana Dumala, the widow of Kuchibhotla, spoke for an anguished nation, when she declared, “I need an answer from the government. I need an answer for everyone out there: what is it that they are going to do to stop this hate crime?”
The Indian media has echoed her call. “President Donald Trump and his political allies, who fanned the red-hot coals of white nationalist tendencies through the course of their election campaign, must answer questions raised by this murder,” the Indian Express newspaper wrote in an editorial on Monday.
An editorial in the The Hindu newspaper noted Mr Trump, a compulsive tweeter, has been silent on Kuchibhotla’s killing, though few doubt he would be so restrained if an immigrant had killed a white American. “The selective social media outrage of Mr Trump on violent acts across America is disturbing,” it said. “This intensifying trend of racist xenophobia may make the US a far more dangerous emigration destination than it has been so far.”
Underlying the furore is a deeper angst over the India-US relationship, which could be headed for a rough patch — despite the bonhomie of Mr Trump’s initial phone calls with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister.
Over the past 15 years or so, Washington’s approach to New Delhi was driven by the belief that facilitating India’s economic rise — and military modernisation — would yield long-term benefits to the US, even without immediate pay-offs.
But Mr Trump has made clear he wants America to get “better deals” in its relations with allies and other friendly countries, and bring American jobs back from overseas, which could hit the strategic ties with India.
For many Indians, especially young engineers, the most emotive question is whether they will still be welcomed, wanted and safe in the US.
Mr Trump’s hostility to Iran is also awkward for India, which has cordial ties with Tehran. New Delhi is also anxiously awaiting clarity on Mr Trump’s policies towards its neighbours, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“I don’t think it’s going to be business as usual, at least not for the next couple of years,” says Dhruva Jaishankar, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s India centre. “We’ll certainly have to negotiate a lot of things in a very delicate manner.”
For decades when official ties between New Delhi and Washington were hostage to cold war rivalries, the Indian public nevertheless admired the US, as a land of opportunity and freedom. Two years ago, a Pew survey found nearly 70 per cent of Indians had a favourable impression of the US, one of the highest levels in the world.
But violence against Indians in America — and perceived official indifference to those crimes — could undermine that positive image and the relationship it sustains.
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