New Delhi: The geopolitical big picture is looking grim for the country. The regime is in a celebratory mood having won a massive mandate. It would have to smell the coffee soon.

The United States on one side and China-Russia on the other are fighting an increasingly severe new Cold War. It has gone beyond a trade war with China and the United States is keener than ever to apply the economic stranglehold on Russia.

The latest is the Donald Trump administration’s strenuous opposition to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to North Germany passing under the Baltic Sea. Trump wants Germany to buy US LNG. With China, the US has had mounting troubles at their separate but proximate military bases in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It has the potential of getting messier.

In line with Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, the United States has applied trade pressure on India, using the excuse of a historical surplus in New Delhi’s favour which is miniscule compared to Washington’s trade deficit with China. Washington removed India from the Generalized System of Preferences and more punitive measures are planned.

Robert Lighthizer, the pugnacious US Trade Representative, was heard to say in the US capital hours ago, “We have spent a lot of time worrying about India...we have a series of problems with them.” GSP was denied to India because, he says, “we made literally no headway over the (trade) issues over the course of months and months and months”. That’s not a lie.

India appears not to take threats of US trade retaliations seriously even after the GSP shocker. US steel and aluminium tariffs have been countered by India’s own on farm imports to target Trump’s rural constituency which the White House won’t take kindly. Codifying data localization laws and ecommerce rules favouring Indian companies as seems likely would invite further swift reprisals.

The US has denied earlier press reports of capping guest-worker visas for countries localizing data but they could just as well be true. In any event, it has shaken the regime and the IT industry. Industry says caps would hurt US industry more which is nonsense. Indian guest workers are scarcely specialists for the most part and their shortfall would be easily filled by other nations. At all events, Donald Trump won’t be moved by this argument, especially as India seems not keen to negotiate.

Should India seek to diversify trade with the other major power, China, taking the aid of the proverb, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it should prove infinitely more problematic. China is not a friend of this country. Even should the regime make light of the 1962 Chinese aggression, the rest of the country cannot.

And China is not a trade friend either. It enjoys a historical surplus with India which it is in no hurry to forgo. In a piece of legerdemain recently, it showed a part of mainland exports to India as originating from Hong Kong. The minister celebrated the reduced surplus till the fudge was exposed.

China sees India as a strategic competitor. Regardless of the fight with the United States, it will not permit India an upper hand in trade. It may make export allowances to India to mock the United States which will only inflame Washington further. At the first opportunity, however, Beijing will cut out New Delhi from its market. China hasn’t become the world’s largest manufacturing nation by playing fair and friendly.

Meanwhile, US impediments to trade with China are already manifest and likely to expand and do not exempt India. India has been warned that Huawei 5G equipment in home networks will terminate US strategic communications and invite punitive measures. This will gradually extend to other Chinese technologies including those related to facial recognition targeting dissidents. Once India is ensnared in US punitive protocols, it would have a cascading effect on the economy and trade. The economy hardly looks good with even the Reserve Bank governor joining the chorus to admit that it is “losing traction”.

In the first Cold War, the dynamics were different. The United States and Soviet Russia were both competing for “Third World partners”. As the inheritor state of British imperial interests, the United States was suspect in former British colonies to the advantage of the Soviet Union.

In that course, India became a little more closely identified with the East Bloc than the West despite Non-Alignment. Thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru and P. V. Narasimha Rao/ Manmohan Singh, India has outperformed expectations of 1947, but it also reverses the power-play in the new Cold War. The United States wants a cut from India’s economic growth never mind that it is sputtering and China won’t let go of its deep penetration of the Indian market.

As a commodity economy joined with a war-economy model for its defence production, Russia has limited utility for India in all this. Geopolitically, it is not so aligned to India as in the Cold War. It is conceivably closer to Pakistan because of the strengthening Russia-China axis. If push comes to shove, it will quit India for Pakistan. Pakistan is critical for the stability of the Russian underbelly of Muslim republics, neighbours and near-neighbours starting from Afghanistan. India can only buy its arms and that too is doubtful for a strategic multiplier like the S-400 whose purchase would unfailingly attract US sanctions.

As for China, it is deeply implicated in Pakistan. Legacy ties and nuclear and conventional weapons transfers aside, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor constitutes a lifeline for Beijing in the outre event of sea denial by Western and East Asian powers. If India foolishly distances from the United States because the regime’s ego is pricked, China will leverage trade and India’s new weakness to become a mediator between Islamabad and New Delhi on Kashmir; in any case, it possesses a portion of Kashmir. And autarchy is no solution to US trade demands. It would represent a terrible regression from the 1991 reforms which put India on the economic map of the world.

On first look, India would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place: the United States representing one pole and China-Russia the other. Look closer, however, and the problem does resolve itself to an extent. To align with China-Russia is to mortgage India’s future. India, in that case, will align with the wrong side of history. The regimes in Beijing and Moscow are obnoxious.

The United States presents a tough alternate but trade negotiations with Washington might yet bring benefits. A level-playing field with predictable policies will do India a world of good: Just today, the Mercedes boss was complaining about their absence. India can do quite well also without data localization: Mukesh Ambani surely doesn’t need crutches for his ecommerce foray. And a progression to free trade will empower the Indian economy in the end.

Finally, nothing is forever: Not even Donald Trump. Nations outlive regimes and administrations.

Editor’s Note: “One nation, one election” will take the country closer to authoritarianism while killing federalism on the way. It will remove the checks and balances that a flexible election process affords. India has come this far without being impeded by parliamentary democracy. Indeed, parliamentary democracy has contributed to India’s rise. It mustn’t be traded for a presidential dictatorship which is the real intent of “one nation, one election”. Contrary to what the slogan implies, India is already one nation. It is best preserved the way it is.