New Delhi: When ruling politicians boast that India will overtake countries x, y and z in GDP or that it only ranks behind China and the United States on a purchasing power parity basis, they don’t realize that the world is listening. And some of those listeners are downright malign and indeed envious of India’s rise.

It didn’t take the US secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, therefore, much imagination to hoist India with its own petard by claiming that the third largest economy of the world had also established “overly restrictive market access barriers”. Speaking in the capital at the Trade Winds conference, Ross claimed India’s average applied tariff was 13.8 per cent. Exaggerating like his boss, Donald Trump, Ross added: “...that remains the highest of any major world economy. The very highest.”

Tariff calculations are among the most politicized features of geo-economics. Different methodologies yield different numbers. If you go by calculations of, say, the Trade Promotion Council of India, you arrive at tariff figures between 1.7 - 2.3 per cent which align with low tariff world economies. These calculations deduct a refund component from total customs revenue. Without those deductions, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank log India’s trade weighted average tariff between 6.3 - 7 per cent. High certainly, but Ross’s 13.8 per cent is rather over the top.

Nevertheless, the discrepancies won’t cut much ice with the United States led by the most transactional president of recent times. Donald Trump has labelled India “tariff king” and there is no power on earth that could make him eat his words. As things stand, Trump will be re-elected president next year, and the period between now and then would be tough for India trade-wise, with likely no reprieve till he demits office four years on.

Analysts in India argue that Trump’s eye is on balancing trade with China and that New Delhi is peripheral to his vision of making “America great again”. Not true, really. When India is ranked third after the US on a PPP metric, even if it be a distant third, Trump can hardly ignore the headline. And in nominal terms for 2019, India occupies fifth place beating France and the UK. This is again something Trump can’t let pass. And should these things somehow escape the US president, Indian rulers are forever drumming it into his ears with their boasts.

India has got reprieve till a new government is sworn in but the noose will tighten thereafter. The pugnacity of Wilbur Ross makes that clear. India will be squeezed between having to pay more for oil imports after the Iran ban and a compulsion to lower tariffs on US imports. Anonymous officials speaking to newspapers talk of resisting US pressure on trade and the Iran ban and of including tainted Chinese companies like Huawei in local 5G networks after concluding some sort of alliance with China. This is both idle and dangerous talk.

China is facing an economic meltdown because of the trade war with the United States. Urban and migrant unemployment figures have peaked compelling the unthinkable revival of forced relocation of the young to rural areas in a dreadful replay of the Cultural Revolution. If Trump can turn the dogs on China, why should he care about India? There is really no truth in the slogan that India and the United States are “natural allies”. Trump’s United States does not even care to identify NATO Europe as a “natural ally”.

Usually, the tried and tested method to forestall US trade bullying is to convince US companies to lobby for foreign host states. It might not succeed with someone like Trump who is convinced that the world has “raped” the United States. But even if there were a small chance of succeeding, which US company would lobby for India with the Trump White House? Wal-Mart? After a $16 billion buyout of Flipkart, it was stunned by a new ecommerce rule barring product sales of sister firms on its platform and heavy festival discounts. Or US medical equipment manufacturers slapped with a price ceiling? The debatable ethics of these decisions are quite separate from the issue of convincing the United States of their validity. What if Washington is not convinced? Can India sustain a bruising trade war with America?

India has to get real about trade differences with the United States. Donald Trump is here to stay for a time. He is pitiless in trade matters. New Delhi has to find ways to work with Washington. This is both about geo-economics and geopolitics.