Narendra Modi is set to travel to the US this month, and though this will be his fifth such visit, it is to be the first since Donald Trump became President. And while Modi has used foreign tours as an effective model of diplomacy, the latest is set to be his biggest challenge yet.
This is so, not just owing to the complexities of international relations, which are hard enough, but due to one single election and its result that has divided the whole world and thrown open all foreign alignments to change.
As Americans voted to make Trump their commander-in-chief, the world witnessed an event which was feared to put the status-quo, of not only how the world's most powerful country would be run at home but also its foreign policy, in danger. And it turns out, such fears were not without merit as most of them have turned out to be true, even though it's been less than five months since he took charge.
Now with Modi to meet Trump at his invitation, the world will see the coming together of a leader who has little, if any, belief in the traditional forms of diplomacy, hosting another who wholeheartedly believes in and acts on their merit, for better foreign relations.
The challenge that is Trump
Relations between nations have always been thought to be based on their needs and wants and on a quid-pro-quo basis. And this almost always holds true since those in power, either modern day heads of government or the Kings of older times, follow a model of diplomacy which serves the best interest of their people.
Yet, an often overlooked point in such matters is the nature and thinking of the leader. Most often than not, while a nation's requirements determine its foreign policies, how they are acted upon depends on the leader in charge. This though usually does not come to the fore as all modern day leaders are usually career politicians well steeped in international diplomacy through the experience of working with other governments.
This is the biggest norm that Trump's victory has broken. As he is not only an unconventional leader but not a politician at all and is even considered an outsider in his own Republican party. Especially since he has no experience in government and has never held elected office.
The difference began to show on his campaign trail where he lambasted almost all policy decisions, both domestic and foreign, of the then President, Barack Obama. While many hoped that he would break away from the rhetoric that was pushed to draw in voters, and follow policies in continuation of past governments with only normal standards of tweaking that are expected from every new administration.
Such hopes though were quickly dashed. This could be seen not only by his decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate agreement, that had for the first time brought almost all countries together in the fight to tackle climate change, but also through the deterioration of the country's relationship with its long-time ally, Europe, among other steps such as his attempts to implement a travel ban on Muslims coming to the US.
This has led to the country, which has been the sole superpower for decades, to be thought of as a pariah whose actions and intentions cannot be trusted. This was truer than ever, as less than a month ago, Trump took to a stage on the lawns of the White House and went on a diatribe against China and India on their role in the climate deal.
And the doubts that he might take critical and controversial decisions on the international front in order to not only boost his domestic agenda but also at times to distract from his failures, have made matters more complicated.
Modi's foreign and India-America policy
It is under such circumstances that Modi is to travel to the US, a trip on which the whole world, along with the citizens of the two countries, is sure to have their eyes on, as the leader of the most powerful democracy in the world meets the leader of the largest.
Modi has made no secrets of the fact that he believes in travelling to other countries as one of the most effective ways of diplomacy and building the country's standing in the world. It is such thinking that has led him to go on more than 60 such tours in order to improve India's ties with the world.
Even with the US, he has been able to carry forward and improve the relations that had caught momentum during the reigns of his predecessors, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, by establishing links with it through having friendly relations with the Obama in addition to traditional methods.
But the accusations hurled at India by Trump have complicated such relations and the way that Modi's visit would have to be managed. Though India's External Affairs Minister was quick to counter such allegations in a diplomatic manner, it is not too hard to imagine how Trump's comments would have thrown a wrench in the thinking and plans of India's foreign policy managers.
While India had followed a policy of non-alignment with any major groupings based on an American or USSR division, it had close relations with the latter after the initial decades post independence. This was so as the economic policy that was followed under India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was closer to that of the Russians.
This changed in the 90's and picked up momentum under Vajpayee, which was carried forward by Singh's government. Modi, who came to power in 2014, pushed to take such relations forward by developing his relationship with Obama. Yet, he was careful not to overplay his hand and built his relationships with other major country's such as Russia and China, while also trying to have an independent and strong relationship with Europe as well as Central Asian countries.
And since the change of guard and uncertainty surrounding the US's policy have come to light, he has put more focus on Russia and China, in case the relations with Trump's administration are not able to deliver the best for India. The increasing possibilities of which have been seen through Trump's tough policy on Iran, an important trade partner for India and its strategic goals.
Modi and how he will manage Trump
Such tough conditions are though not expected to deter the prime minister from at least trying to maintain the partnership that the country has with the US and attempt to take it to the next level. Especially since he would not want a change in administration, though a big hurdle, change his foreign strategy, of which a nation of the stature of US is a big part of.
To achieve this would be no simple feat and would need his visit to be a major success, which would be measured on a scale different to that of his previous trips.
One advantage that Modi will have is the party that Trump belongs to. Republicans have always been considered to be in favour of close relations with India, as was seen in the bonding that developed between the countries during previous Republican President George Bush's term. And India can bank on the support from the party's leadership for closer ties between the two countries.
The difficulties arise from the fact that Trump is not a hardcore member of the party and due to his personal nature of wanting to be in the spotlight and inconsistencies that he shows on various issues.
To counter these, Modi will try to develop a personal bond with him, a tool that he has used effectively with other world leaders such as Obama and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Of all the details of the President's meeting with other world leaders, this seems to be the best bet.
Along with the conventional measures of diplomacy, trade, strategic alliances by which such a relationships are developed, the prime minister would have to try and appeal to Trump's personal nature as well. Such extra efforts would be needed given the importance of the US's economic and strategic power.
The fact that Trump likes to be the centre of attention is no secret and came out visibly during his meeting with NATO leaders where in order to get a better position in front of the press he ended up nudging another leader to the side. Though this might seem like naive behaviour which should not hold international relations in the balance, under Trump the importance of the power of the nature of the leader can never be overestimated.
And such a thought would have to be kept in mind by Modi and his team while trying to build a personal rapport with Trump. If this is done, the visit will see none of the fanfares and shows that the prime minister was not only a part of but also their centre of attraction during his previous US visits.
Though this may be played out as a reaction to the recent tensions in the relations between the two countries, such conceding or at least sharing the spotlight with Trump should be seen as a means to develop a camaraderie.
This is going to be unlike any other foreign visit that Modi has made in his term yet, as the unconventional nature of the leader he is about to meet will make the regular steps of diplomacy far less effective and would need the adoption of means considered far from conventional.
It is not only going to be a test of the prime minister's foreign diplomacy skills but will also play a role in deciding the future alignment of the country in relation to other world powers.
The hint to the answers to questions such as will India continue its close partnership with the US or will a return to the policy of closer ties with Russia be adhered to in addition to China, or Modi's vision for India to be close to all powers continue, will depend on how the first meeting between the two leaders later this month turns out.