While Indo-US bilateral ties have never really been cosy, things have been rockier than usual of late, courtesy factors ranging from trade skirmishes and arms deals. But India has reportedly already taken the first step towards setting things right. According to The Times of India, the Modi government has invited US President Donald Trump to be the chief guest for next year's Republic Day parade. Though India is still awaiting a formal response to the invite sent out in April, the Trump administration is reportedly favourably considering it - as the US has indicated to the Indian government over the past few weeks, which has seen several rounds of diplomatic engagement on the topic.
The report adds that given Trump's sheer unpredictability, if he does end up accepting the invite, his presence promises to be even more dramatic than the one by his predecessor Barack Obama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first R-Day guest in 2015. And might well be tom-tommed by the government as India's biggest foreign policy coup in the past few years in the run up to general elections next year.
After all, recent developments have left many questioning whether India figures in Trump's priority list at all - as it has certainly done under Obama. Last month, the much-talked about Indo-US 2+2 dialogue got postponed for a second time. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were scheduled to meet with their American counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis, on June 6 but the US had postponed the maiden dialogue citing "unavoidable reasons".
According to the daily, India had hoped to address several friction points during this meeting. But the fact that Pompeo headed off to North Korea on the scheduled date, where he did not even get to meet Kim Jong-un, has not gone unnoticed by Indian authorities and India watchers in the global think-tank community. The decision only magnified the erratic nature of the Trump administration where India is concerned.
To remind you, the format the 2+2 Dialogue had been agreed upon when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Donald Trump for the first time in the White House last June. This meeting was previously pushed back due to the uncertainty over the confirmation of Pompeo as new Secretary of State, after his predecessor Rex Tillerson got sacked.
Further muddying the waters is India's nearly Rs 40,000 crore deal to procure S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Russia. The buzz is that Russia and India are likely to announce the deal before an annual summit between Modi and Putin in October, but if India goes through with the deal it faces impending sanctions from the US under Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The Act, which came into effect in January, mandates the Trump administration to punish entities engaging in significant transaction with the defence or intelligence establishment of Russia.
Differences over trade tariffs and US reluctance to acknowledge India's close energy and historical ties with Iran have further strained bilateral ties. India is yet to make its stand on Iran oil official, hard-pressed to choose between risking US sanctions and risking disrupted supplies if it pays heed to the US diktat.
The Trump administration brought back sanctions against Iran after pulling out the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May. The US has told nations to cut oil imports from the Gulf nation to "zero" by November 4 or face sanctions and is unwilling to offer a waiver to India like the last round of sanctions in 2012. But Iran is not only India's third-largest oil supplier - we imported 18.4 million tonnes of crude oil from the country between April 2017 and January 2018 - but also India's gateway to Afghanistan as well as Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.
According to the daily, the R-Day invite, which the government is pursuing with great determination, is a sign that it does not believe the differences with the US are insurmountable. Moreover, Trump's acceptance will help it stem - to an extent - the tide of recent foreign policy criticism, not least because of the reverses India seems to have suffered in the neighbourhood recently.