Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered what he had promised Donald J. Trump. He turned his presidential visit into a memorable spectacle and also succeeded in making one of the most polarising American presidents in history feel immensely popular and loved after his two-day Indian sojourn. “It was an expression of real love. Everybody saw and witnessed that,” said Trump about the rousing welcome he received in Ahmedabad, Agra and Delhi.
But even as the bonhomous negotiations between the two leaders continued, communal riots raged in northeast Delhi, killing more than two dozen people and injuring hundreds. The ugly tension was stoked on the eve of Trump’s visit and reached a crisis point as he was in Delhi, raising questions about its motivation. Was this an attempt to embarrass Modi as he was feting this most honoured of guests?
Trump, anyway, refused to be drawn into any controversy. “As far as the individual attack, I heard about it but I didn’t discuss that with him [Modi]. That’s up to India,” he simply said at a press conference. He also gingerly dealt with a question on the controversial and divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the fount of protests across India, and at the root of the Delhi riots.
But the issue of religious freedom did come up in Trump’s discussion with the PM. “I would say the prime minister…wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly. India has worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom,” Trump added.
Indicating their growing closeness, India and the US agreed to elevate their relations to the level of a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. “As leaders of sovereign and vibrant democracies recognising the importance of freedom, equal treatment of all citizens, human rights, and our commitment to the rule of law, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi vowed to strengthen a US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership anchored in mutual trust shared interest, goodwill, and robust engagement of their citizens,” the joint statement said.
The two sides also signed agreements and MoUs to enhance cooperation in defence, maritime and homeland security, mental health, energy including nuclear energy as well as space and 5G technology.
Trump arrived in Ahmedabad on February 24 with wife Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner along with a 12-member delegation of senior officials. The Prime Minister was there to receive him; thousands lined up on the route—cheering, dancing and waving in a show of welcome. Later, at the ‘Namaste Trump’ event at the Motera cricket stadium complex, a capacity crowd of 1,25,000 warmly greeted and applauded him as he addressed a large gathering for the first time outside the shores of America.
“I think…virtually from the plane to whatever venue we were going to, it was wall-to-wall people,” he said. Visibly impressed with the reception, he added, “somebody said it was the greatest greeting ever given to any head of state from any country”. The Trumps then visited the Taj Mahal before going to Delhi.
Ivanka Trump and White House adviser Jared Kushner pose for a selfie at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
But, as dust from the pomp and circumstance settles down, it may be a legitimate question to ask: What the visit was all about?
Trump, fresh from repulsing a Democrat-initiated impeachment motion in the US Senate, arrived in India in fine political fettle. A buoyant economy and a historically low unemployment rate, with China economically hurt by the outbreak of coronavirus, found him in an expansive mood. Paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram and Rajghat did little to curb Trump’s penchant to crow and strut.
But his break from the reelection campaign to fly down over 8,000 miles for a 36-hour visit raises questions on the purpose of the visit.
Some see it as an indication of both India and PM Narendra Modi’s value to the US President. But sceptics remain unconvinced, especially by the fact that this was a rare, ‘stand-alone’ visit. Trump, a reluctant, long-distance traveler, had bunched several countries together in his past foreign visits. The only other exception was Japan, whose premier Shinzo Abe is considered to be a close friend. What makes Modi qualify for this honour?
Modi pointed out that he was meeting Trump for the fifth time in eight months—indicating their personal chemistry and deepening US-India ties. But Trump has realised the popularity Modi enjoys among Americans of Indian origin, as proven by the packed Houston stadium during the “Howdy Modi” event last year.
Traditionally, NRIs have voted Democrat—in 2016, over 77 per cent had opted for Hilary Clinton; only 16 percent supported Trump. Among other states, Texas is a must-win for Trump. Recent surveys have shown that because of Modi, Trump’s approval rating among Indian-Americans have risen to 56 per cent. Thus the argument that one important reason for his being in India, especially his decision to address affluent Gujaratis, stemmed purely from electoral calculations.
That, and business—from getting Indian investments for the US and selling American military hardware, nuclear reactors, oil and gas to preparing the ground for a trade agreement that will reduce the current $20 billion trade deficit (favouring India) between the two sides makes a visit worthwhile for Trump (see box). In addition, a trade agreement that gives freer access for American products to the Indian market can also work out in Trump’s favour.
Indeed, he managed to sell both military equipment and nuclear reactors, giving credence to the belief that this was a business visit pure and simple.
Yet beyond the immediate financial transaction lies India’s stature and importance in the American scheme.
Trump was the fourth consecutive US President to visit India since Bill Clinton in 2000. He was followed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Significantly, before Clinton the last American President to visit Delhi was Jimmy Carter in 1978. While the past two decades saw an upswing in India-US relations, both Obama and Trump visited the country in their first term in office.
While India’s attractiveness as a huge market and investment destination remains a major factor for American interest, India’s growing clout in the international arena also play a key role for this shift in the US attitude.
Deal-making apart, a standalone visit clearly shows the importance Trump gives to India and PM Modi as he deals with various challenges at the global stage, especially a looming China in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The great power competition is back, which has led to India getting a ‘disproportionate’ sense of attention from the US,” says a senior member of a leading American thinktank.
During his speech at Motera, Trump made oblique references to China without naming it, as he argued how India’s rise as a power is encouraged by the US and others, while that of others evokes strong resistance. The reference to the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea, with emphasis on freedom of navigation, commerce and flights are all aimed at Beijing’s assertiveness.
All this, however, does not paper over real differences between India and the US in a number of areas.
“In the 1990s, Americans used to say the rise of China is in the US’s interest. Today, they say India’s rise in the US interest,” says a former Indian ambassador to the US. “How long will it take them to change their position yet again towards China?”
Though, that seems unlikely in the near future, there is little doubt that both the US and India will need to engage with China as they have been doing on a number of areas. Therefore, while India partner the US and others to ensure the Indo-Pacific area is not dominated by any one country, it will not like to be part of an alliance that excludes China from contributing to the region’s stability either.
Indian officials also point out that though Trump has made common cause with India, asking Pakistan to do more to stop cross-border terrorism targeted at India, its own interest in the coming months is likely to make Washington look for a more meaningful engagement with Islamabad as well. Pakistan’s help in reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban and its support in the withdrawal of the US military and its equipment from Afghanistan is also crucial. A Trump administration going soft on Pakistan by adopting a more sympathetic stand vis-à-vis the Imran Khan government will pay dividends if the Pakistani prime minister can help get US troops home before next November. It will allow Trump to claim credit for ending America’s longest war.
A post-withdrawal structure in Afghanistan, with the prospect of the Taliban taking control of the country, will remain an area of serious concern for India despite US’s blithe advice that New Delhi continue to engage in the development of the war-torn country.
Another major worry for India concerns rebuilding the bipartisan support it enjoyed from both Republican and Democrat leaders in the US over the past years—something that helped in the remarkable turnaround in ties. In the light of the rambunctious Modi-Trump chemistry, observers feel India needs to convince the Democrat leadership that the warm welcome accorded to Trump was given to a US president, not to an individual. However, given the highly polarised political scenario in the US, which is likely to get sharper as the November presidential election draws closer, it will continue to pose a serious challenge for Indian diplomats. That’s the one political liability of fawning over this US president.
The President’s Many Deals
- India to procure MH-60 R naval and AH-64 E Apache helicopters (in pic) at $3 billion from the US
- As major defence partner, highest consideration for procurement and technology transfer
- Enhanced homeland security cooperation
- To jointly fight crimes like human trafficking, terrorism and violent extremism, drug trafficking and crimes in cyber space
- To establish counter narcotics working group
- Comprehensive bilateral trade agreement for advancing prosperity, investment and job creation
- Grow links in trade and investment in hydrocarbons and enhance energy security
- Construction of six nuclear reactors in India
- Joint mission between ISRO and NASA for dual frequency Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite
- Increase higher education collaboration
- MoU on mental health challenges
- Promote access to high-quality, effective and affordable medication for Indian and US consumers
- Strategic convergence in Indo-Pacific for free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous region