Trump, Modi Revel in Mutual Praise, Adoring Crowds

Politics, personal rapport deflect trade row and lack of initiatives

By: John Elliott

Donald Trump’s state visit to India was always going to be a raging success, and so it turned out in terms of the mutual praise bordering on adoration exchanged between the president and prime minister Narendra Modi, strengthening the two leaders’ personal bonds.

Both politicians gained in terms of voter appeal and Trump said it was a “great fantastic two days.” On best behavior and mostly avoiding controversy, he praised Modi as “a man I am proud to call my true friend,” though he was “a very tough negotiator.” India, he said, “would always hold a very special place in our hearts.”

But there was relatively little of substance affecting the relationship between the US and India, and the consequences of Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism led to media coverage of the visit being disrupted by violent clashes between police and rival groups of rioters linked to protests over new citizenship legislation.

Thirteen people were killed, vehicles and buildings burned and teargas used in northeast Delhi, just 12 km from where the state visit was taking place on February 25. The protests over what is seen as anti-Muslim citizenship legislation have run for more than two months, but this level of violence between rival groups was new. It stemmed from a BJP local politician threatening over the weekend that his Hindu followers would clear the streets of Muslim protestors if the police didn’t do so first.

The main announcement during the visit was that India is buying US$3 billion worth of helicopters for its army and navy. This had however been under negotiation for some time and was specially packaged as the lead item.

There was no apparent progress on a long-awaited trade pact, and rumors of possible deals on nuclear power stations and a counter-terrorism center didn’t materialize.

The highlight of the visit was an astonishing rally (left) on February 24 of over 100,000 cheering supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, many sporting white caps with the words “Namaste Trump.” The crowds were mostly bused into what is billed as the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, the main city of Modi’s home state of Gujarat, to greet Trump and his wife Melanie a few hours after they arrived in India.

The massive crowd’s adulation of Modi, as well as Trump, smacked more of events organized by leaders of totalitarian states than a democracy. The Indian prime minister, however, revels in such occasions, as did Trump who proudly said later it was the “greatest greeting ever given to any leader.”

Both men gained in terms of voter-oriented political prestige from that event and the whole visit. There are 4 million-plus people of Indian origin in the US, who are potential voters for Trump in November’s presidential election. For Modi, they form a significant and influential diaspora. More than 800,000 are from Gujarat and are instinctively his overseas cheerleaders.

Modi is also proudly credited by many voters in India for having raised the country’s profile on the world stage, so the Trump visit has also enhanced that reputation.

By normal standards for state visits, however, this was brief, billed as “two days” but actually just 36 hours – an overnighter in less formal parlance. Trump was invited to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade last month but didn’t accept, mainly it is thought because of problems with a proposed trade deal.

It was Trump’s first visit since he became president, though he and Modi have met at least seven times, most flamboyantly in Houston last September at a “Howdy Modi” rally staged by the diaspora with up to 50,000 Indian Americans. Modi took Trump along as the co-star, setting the stage for the much larger event in Ahmedabad.

The only formal agreements this week were for cooperation on mental health and safety and an oil industry issue. More important were talks covered international affairs, terrorism, security, defense, and energy technology that will have laid down plans for development of initiatives.

They included setting up working groups on curbing narcotics trafficking and reinvigorating homeland security, but nothing was said publicly to indicate that Trump had pressed Modi on issues of religious freedom – which Modi said somewhat implausibly he supported and encouraged.

On international affairs, Trump said the two leaders had agreed on “revitalizing the Quad initiative,” which includes Japan and Australia. This link-up is designed to contain Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. It has made little progress in recent years, although a meeting was held at ministerial level last September.

Trump also made a point of saying more than once that he was close to Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, as well as Modi, offering in a press conference towards the end of the visit to mediate – something he knows India rejects. That was the nearest he got to a controversial remark during the visit.

NDTV evening news screen split between riot fires in north-east Delhi and the Trumps arriving for a banquet in the presidential palace

It is rare for defense deals like the helicopter orders to be included in such a visit – the last time it happened was when Modi visited Paris in April 2015. He set up a deal for Dassault’s Mirage fighters that became highly controversial and haunted him for years with allegations of corruption.

Trump alluded to trade problems several times during the visit, linking that with remarks about Modi being “tough.” Before he arrived, he did his regular trick of putting his hosts on the wrong foot with negative comments. “We’re not treated very well by India,” he said last week, though he added in the same breath “I happen to like prime minister Modi a lot.”

Later he grumbled that India had been “hitting us hard” on trade with tariffs that are “the highest in the world.” There would be a “tremendous trade deal,” he said, but maybe not before the November election.

There are tensions over trade in various areas including agriculture, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs stemming from the Modi government’s increasingly protectionist policies. Modi’s Made in India campaign also clashes with Trump’s similar approach for the US.

Earlier this month, even though the Trump visit was imminent, the US removed India from the list of developing countries that benefit from US tariff preferences on countervailing duties because, as a G-20 member, it was no longer a “developing country.” Last March, the US raised tariffs on steel and aluminum and suspended India’s tariff-free access for some US$5.6 billion in exports under a 1970s-era Generalized System of Preferences

There are other points of tension between the two countries whose relations, overall, are more troubled than they have been for some years.

Modi referred to their “global strategic partnership,” carefully avoiding the word “allies” that the US would like but India refuses to acknowledge.

Trump and Modi rose above such details, but that was personal rapport, not lasting co-operation.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant