Donald Trump and
Narendra Modi at
the Motera Stadium
February 24 (Photo: AP)
SPECTACLE. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO DESCRIBE THE visit of US President Donald Trump to India. From the cheering crowd at Motera stadium in Ahmedabad to the trademark hugs on the lawns of Hyderabad House, the visit was one grand show. Critics and nitpickers were quick to raise the spectre of spectacle substituting substance.
In the event, these fears were misplaced. India’s relations with the US have traditionally been an amalgam of incrementalism and caution, the former on the part of both countries, and the latter, an Indian feature. From that perspective, the joint statement issued at the end of Trump’s visit was mere marshmallows. But a careful reading shows that the sand beneath incrementalism is shifting.
‘President Trump and Prime Minister Modi decided to strengthen consultation through United States-India-Japan trilateral summits; the 2+2 ministerial meeting mechanism of the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the United States; and the United States-India-Australia-Japan Quadrilateral consultations, among others. President Trump and Prime Minister Modi looked forward to enhanced maritime domain awareness sharing among the United States, India, and other partners.’
These words will be subject to interpretation in times ahead, but there are no two ways about it.
“Aside from the disappointment on trade, the visit actually exceeded my expectations. When Trump enters the picture, all bets are off,” Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow, South Asia, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Open.
“But the President miraculously largely stuck to script and managed not to offend his Indian guests. And the larger signalling to Beijing is clear: despite irritants from trade to migration to intellectual property, the strategic logic underpinning the US-India relationship remains solid. And here the China factor, while unstated, is unmissable.”
The strategic aspects of the partnership were clear not just from Quad-related references but also from the continuing flow of weapons from the US to India. India agreed to purchase $3 billion worth of military hardware: six Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters for the Army in a follow-up order and 24 MH-60R Romeo helicopters for the Indian Navy. Probably the only thing that holds back India from further purchases of advanced weaponry is its severe budgetary limitations. By every passing year, the US has been clearing the decks for India to acquire ever-more sophisticated equipment.
“No doubt the visit will have an indirect effect. It sends a message to China and Pakistan about the direction and degree of warmth in the relationship. But I don’t think that was a key concern for Modi and Trump,” says Rahul Sagar, associate professor of politics at New York University’s Abu Dhabi centre.
“Trump wanted to be celebrated, Modi wanted to celebrate him,” he added.
One area of concern has, however, remained constant ever since the start of the Trump presidency: irritants over trade. The US is among India’s top trading partners and enjoys a modest trade surplus with it. This has been the constant refrain of Trump since he became President. In New Delhi, he chose not to make too much of it. He said while the trade deficit was $30 billion two years ago, it had come down by a bit to $24 billion last year. Furthering of trade ties is one area where progress between the two countries has been tardy. There is constant refrain of a ‘big deal’ in the making but there are few visible signs of that. It is something that needs to be addressed.
But in the end, the visit was successful and Trump said as much: “You have done a great honour to the American people. Melania and my family, we will always remember this remarkable hospitality. We will remember it forever. From this day on, India will always hold a very special place in our hearts.”
Critics and doubters will say this was nothing more than an impromptu remark in a stadium with more than a hundred thousand adulating people. But the reality is that both Trump and Modi are politicians of a kind the world has forgotten, the kind who found a ‘connect’ with masses in an age when politics was not elite-driven and when democracy meant listening to the will of the majority. It is not surprising that Trump liked the people-lined avenues of Ahmedabad where the cheering crowd warmed up to him.
Plenty has been written about the alleged ‘concert of authoritarians’ in the Western press and Modi and Trump have had their share of it. But the fact is that in a world where nationalism is respectable once again, it is hard not to see friendly leaders enjoying the warm glow of adulation in each other’s nations. The earlier nationalisms were marked with bitterness and anger. There is little doubt that adversarial relations will have that strain in them. But unlike diplomacy conducted behind closed walls in the age of globalisation, the more apt locations these days are stadia and broad avenues where leaders connect with the masses. Far from signalling ‘authoritarian populism’, these are unambiguous signals of democratic well-being.
There is little doubt that India and the US will bargain hard over many issues, with trade being on top of that. But if one views the longue durèe of the India-US relation, irritants have seldom put gravel in the smooth functioning of the diplomatic machine. Twenty years ago, soon after the nuclear tests of 1998, relations hit rock bottom. But within a year, the then US President paid a wildly successful visit to India. Since then there has been a vast change in ties—for the better.
TWO DAYS BEFORE Trump arrived in Ahmedabad, hundreds of women protestors blocked the road under a metro station in Jafrabad, a locality in northeast Delhi. The protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that began on February 22nd night had a template that was eerily similar to the one in Shaheen Bagh, another protest site in the national capital. In both locations, women were at the forefront of the protest with a similar tactic: blocking a major road to halt traffic in a bid to attract attention. The same provocative slogans for azaadi (freedom) were heard in the two sites that are 25 km apart.
Unlike Shaheen Bagh, however, matters turned ugly in Jafrabad. There was a counter-protest and mobilisation in favour of the CAA. Even as the situation was getting out of hand quickly, none of the usual mechanisms to deal with the problem—local peace committees of notables among Muslims and Hindus and police reinforcements—were activated. In no time, the entire area—comprising different colonies—were up in arms against each other. The deadly round of violence spread over two days claimed 24 lives, including those of a police official. More than 150 persons, including a deputy commissioner of police, were injured.
Strictly speaking, the events in Delhi are an internal matter of India. But they found their way into the visit of the US President. On February 25th evening, he was asked a direct question on the violence and CAA by a foreign journalist. The response was clear and steered away from creating any controversy: “So, we did talk about religious freedom. And I will say that the Prime Minister was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly. And he said that in India they have—they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom. And if you look back and look at what’s going on, relative to other places especially, but they have really worked hard on religious freedom. I asked that question in front of a very large group of people today. And he talked about it; we talked about it for a long time. And I really believe that’s what he wants.”
“As far as the individual attack, I heard about it but I didn’t discuss that with him. That’s up to India.”
Predictably enough, this did not go down well with a set of elite foreign and defence policy analysts in the West. A hail of tweets deploring the absence of any response from Trump to the violence and the alleged discrimination of Muslims in India ensued soon after he left India. The possibility of the visit being coloured in a negative light cannot be ruled out.
There is, however, a problem. In demanding a response from Trump, these analysts came close to asking the leader of one independent country to intercede in the affairs of a friendly country. But the same analysts were quick to decry the event in Houston on September 22nd last year. At that time, Modi and Trump addressed a huge gathering of Indian-Americans as Modi—and in turn, the current Indian Government—cast their lot with Trump in the maelstrom of American politics. The twists and turns did not stop there. A number of US Congress leaders are trying to get a resolution passed in the House against India’s alleged ‘lockdown’ in Jammu and Kashmir. Predictably enough, there has been no noise from the constituency of India analysts against what is a clear attempt to exert pressure on the Government of India.
Trump, a very sharp politician who has faced political attacks from elite constituencies in the US, knew what some expected him to say and had a clear answer ready. At the start of his press conference on Tuesday, he prefaced his press conference by saying, “So I’m going to be not at all controversial because I don’t want to blow the two days, plus two days of travel, on one answer—one little answer.”
Astute observers did not miss this.
“Diplomatically, the single most important feature of his visit was his avoiding discussing internal politics. It shows that he, or at least his advisors, are extremely shrewd. They understand the BJP’s redlines. He was very smart and sensible in ignoring political violence in Delhi, which was timed to exploit his visit,” Sagar added.
As a result for all the ‘haze’, noise and confusion sought to be created around Trump’s visit, it ought to be evaluated from the vantage of the usual parameters that define the bilateral relationship. From that perspective, the ties remain robust and are on an upward trajectory.
Here, it is important to point the caution being voiced among certain well-wishers of India. Notable voices such as those of Ashley Tellis, the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have cautioned against the erosion of values that have been an important ingredient in furthering relations between the two countries. In comments to Financial Times, he said, “Constituencies in the US are starting to look at India in different ways than they have looked at India in the past.” He added, “There was a conviction in Washington that a good relationship with India was absolutely essential to our future. That conviction is beginning to break down.”
The question of shared values—democracy, rule of law, etcetera—is indeed important. But whether it overdetermines the specific relationship is an open question. India needs to sift through the voices of those who mean well and those who decry steps like the abrogation of Article 370 merely because they unsettle old ways. This is something to be watched.
In the immediate context, it will be wise for India to aggressively push for a trade deal with the US. There are plenty of irritants and troubling points in reaching such an agreement but it will be certainly worth expending political capital on the part of Prime Minister Modi. If there is one area where President Trump will be receptive to Indian overtures, it is trade. A bilateral free-trade agreement is more like a holy grail between the two countries than a realistic prospect. But the time has come to invest capital, time and effort in chasing that dream. It can pay great dividends in a world that is closing its doors to commerce and ideas.