Ivanka Gets Red Carpet Treatment from Modi

Given the personal interest of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to establish a relationship with US President Donald Trump, the government has scrambled to put out the red carpet for Trump’s daughter Ivanka in her first India trip – which was overshadowed by international criticism of her own imported clothing label’s use of cheap overseas labor – a practice her father has railed against.

Ivanka was making her first major stand-alone outing on the global stage in the southern city of Hyderabad as an advocate of women's empowerment. Modi's desire to establish rapport has meant that during her stay and travel Ivanka is being accorded a welcome befitting a head of state. She is being ferried around the city in a caravan of three bulletproof and mine-resistant limousines flown in by the US Secret Services.

Across Hyderabad, a metropolis of 7.75 million people, the local administration has been going into a lather cleaning up the streets and giving the city a makeover, raising objections from a sizable segment of the city’s residents. Thousands of beggars and homeless people have been rounded up and removed from pavements. Gigantic hoardings welcoming Trump to `Cyberabad', as Hyderabad is also known as due to its reputation as a IT hub, pepper its landscape.

The First Daughter, who inaugurated the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2017 on Nov. 28, was invited by Modi when he visited Washington in June. The summit, inaugurated in 2010 under the leadership of former US President Barack Obama at Washington DC, marks its eighth edition. With US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declining to show, Trump is at the head of a delegation of quasi-senior White House officials as well as American entrepreneurs. More than 10 countries are represented by all-female delegations, including from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

Modi also hosted a dinner for Trump at Taj groups' heritage hotel Falaknuma Palace. The palatial estate was built in 1894 by the Nizam of Hyderabad - the richest man in the world at one time. The 60-room five-star luxury hotel sprawls over 32 acres and has a stunning Durbar Hall, Jade Room and a massive 101-seat dining hall bedecked with Belgian chandeliers and assorted gardens and terraces. The dining hall, with 101 identical carved rosewood chairs, is touted as the world's largest such hall. This is where Modi hosted the dinner for Trump and other summit delegates who feasted on royal delicacies prepared by the city's top chefs.

Pomp and pageantry notwithstanding, the response to Trump's visit across Hyderabad was mixed. "It's cool that Ivanka is coming," Amani Bhugati, a medical student was quoted by a daily as saying. "She's glamorous, beautiful and powerful. It's like a combination of Hollywood and politics."

Others felt that her status and personality have overshadowed the cause she'd come to promote. "The summit has, disappointingly, become more about Ivanka," said a volunteer with a local non-profit in a TV interview. "Women's issues and what needs to be done to empower them have taken a backseat."

The visit also acquired bad press because of other issues. Civic authorities in Hyderabad came in for flak as they used strong-arm tactics to hustle the beggars and the homeless out of sight of the Trump-led delegation. Allegedly, stray dogs were poisoned in officials’ zeal to clean up the city. Annie Gowen, India bureau chief of the Washington Post also tweeted that a bridge in Hyderabad had been painted in multiple colors because Trump is set to take that route.

But the bulk of the criticism was reserved for Trump's failure to leverage her position and leadership role to call out labor and human rights abuses, particularly in China, where the bulk of her Ivanka Trump fashion line of US merchandise ships from. Critics pointed out that she has failed to take a public stand on alleged abuses in her brand's own supply chain. Workers at a factory in China used by the company that makes clothing for Trump’s fashion line endured long hours, low pay at Chinese factory to earn wages of little more than US$62 a week, according to a factory audit.

"Trump has called for more support for working women around the world, but she has remained silent about the largely female garment workforce in India and other Asian countries that makes her clothing...What are the work conditions for laborers in India who have pieced together clothes for her fashion line?" asked The Washington Post.

According to reports by China Labor Watch, Trump's company forced workers to sign fake pay stubs with inflated salary numbers and threatened to fire workers if they didn’t fill in questionnaires about working conditions with pre-approved answers. Workers also said the company pressured employees not to speak with outsiders about work conditions at the factory.

Such reports took the gloss away from Trump's visit. Though in the run-up, the White House had been trumpeting Trump's credentials as a “a champion of women’s economic empowerment not just in words but in action,” and the woman has herself underscored her administration’s "commitment to the principle that when women are economically empowered, their communities and countries thrive,” her words found little traction with her India audience. They are left with a feeling that Donald Trump's eldest daughter's words – though eloquent – don't match up to her actions on the ground.

Neeta Lal, a Delhi-based editor & journalist and a longtime Asia Sentinel contributor, tweets at @neeta_com