New Delhi: When Donald Trump has brought China almost to its knees, compelled the European Union to sue for peace on tariffs, and set Iran on the road to perdition, it devolved on India to deal with the United States president with an abundance of caution. A series of flip-flops, however, have characterized Indo-US relations, with the latest being that Trump, after all, may turn down the invitation of the Narendra Modi government to be chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. Rather than send feelers to the White House about 26 January, inviting Donald Trump was official which his spokesperson confirmed at a press conference in an offhand, disinterested manner. It was evident Trump would stay away. The papers report from Washington that India’s commercial ties with Iran and the air defence deal with Russia have queered the pitch in addition to conflicted trade ties.

As if there was no tomorrow, Narendra Modi overdid the “hugging” diplomacy with Donald Trump on their first meeting. Such display of affection and even perhaps close ties is severely restricted in Western culture and tradition to loved ones who are family and friends. In geopolitics, especially in the transactional time of today, give and take drives ties. Heads of governments are under enormous pressure to deliver on trade and jobs. As US presidents go, Trump is an arch transactor. He has also no choice in the matter. While he did not inherit a collapsing economy from Barack Obama as he likes to claim, the United States still is not in the best of health. Donald Trump’s constituents are mostly working class whites with zero future under globalization. He is also an old man in a hurry. The US presidency could never be business as usual for him. He proved that by launching a trade war with China, squeezing Western Europe on NATO contributions, and turning the screws on EU imports, which brought the EU chief scrambling to Washington for damage control. This was not the time for India to claim waivers from the United States for buying Russian weapons alternating with defiant statements that it would do so in any case. On Iran, too, it pressed for concessions when it should have known that Iran represents a red rag for Donald Trump.

Lutyens’ Delhi induces delusions of grandeur in its official inhabitants commencing from the prime minister down. There is a sense that India is entitled to special treatment among the Major Powers and in particular by the United States. Is India the world’s leading economy? No. The number one military power? No. A technology giant? No. So why should it be entitled to special treatment? India is aggrieved that Trump has tightened the net against body-shopping Indian IT companies but why should he permit their non-innovative growth? Why, indeed, should he continue to permit Indian free trade in the US market without gaining reciprocal concessions from India? There is a line from the Quentin Tarantino classic, Jackie Brown, that aptly sums the situation: “Is white guilt supposed to make me forget I’m running a business?”

The ministry of external affairs is a strange institution. If its diplomatic officials had a cursory knowledge of Washington history, red flags would have popped up everywhere. Public opinion is stacked against the president and his dealings and those of his family with Russian state agents before his election are eminently impeachable offenses. The US Congress traditionally turns against the White House faced with negative public opinion against a sitting president. Even if that denouement is weeks away and might never arrive, it is certain that the Congress could not be seen making concessions to Russia. And here was India, in some dreamland, expecting Congressional concessions on Russian defence deals at just that time. On Iran, India completely misread Trump’s deep animus towards the regime, whose change he wants whether or not it is possible. And India fundamentally erred on the trade imbalance with the United States, supplicating one moment, baring fangs at another, and Narendra Modi participated in one too many summits with the Chinese and Russian strongmen, whose benefits to India were close to nil, while conveying the wrong impression to Washington. Amidst all this confusion, the Modi regime appears to have sleepwalked into inviting Donald Trump for the 26th, which the US president has sensibly begged off from. If India under Narendra Modi irrationally conducts foreign policy, it cannot expect the United States to be also prone to blundering. Presidential trips are closely monitored for their productivity and outcomes. The White House probably figured India was not the right place for business at this time. For India, this is a self-inflicted wound.