If the adulation of Trump and the rally made it seem like India was the 51st state in Trump’s re-election campaign, it may be because Modi bets on the re-election of a tough, right-wing hardliner with whom he shares some characteristics, writes Arul Louis.
SANDWICHED BETWEEN FRIDAY CAMPAIGN RALLIES in Nevada and South Carolina, President Donald Trump’s visit to India could have been mistaken by many for a re-election campaign stop at America’s State No. 51. But it would also be imprudent to dismiss the Feb 24-25 visit entirely as optics for his re-election because it also reaffirmed and drew attention to the developing strategic ties between New Delhi and Washington.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared at a joint appearance with Trump in New Delhi: “This relationship is the most important partnership of the 21st century. And therefore, today, President Trump and I have taken a decision to raise our partnership to the level of a comprehensive global strategic partnership.”
But this too was optics, showing the world the close relationship while also papering over the differences in trade and strategic matters, because all the work had already been done or was being done and the summit in New Delhi was not required to set them in motion or break the deadlocks – nor was it expected to.
The only substantial agreement announced during the visit was for India to buy American military equipment, including Apache and MH-60R helicopters, worth $3 billion.
Naturally, terrorism figured prominently and Modi said at their joint appearance, “We have also taken a decision today to further increase our efforts in order to hold supporters of terrorism responsible” and Trump “affirmed our two countries’ commitment to protecting our citizens from radical Islamic terrorism.”
China, which was an important rationale for the strategic element to the ties between the two countries, was the unseen presence during the visit – unmentioned by name but looming large. They gave the Indo-Pacific region’s security and quadrilateral cooperation involving Japan and Australia their due.
There was diplomatic silence on New Delhi buying the Triumf S-400 Russian missile defence system that could put India under US sanctions or other purchases that Pentagon says could hamper the progress made by the two countries to enhance the interoperability of their defence systems.
A related issue, India buying 5G telecommunications equipment from the Chinese company Huawei, was given a passing mention. Trump said at his joint meeting before the media that they “discussed the importance of a secure 5G wireless network” and that it should “not to do anything where it could be even conceived as a conduit for suppression and censorship.”
The India visit came on the eve of the Trump administration signing an agreement with the once-hated Taliban to enable Trump to keep his election promise of bringing US troops abroad home.
He may have tried to soften India’s approach to the US-Taliban deal. Trump said at his New Delhi news conference, “I think India would like to see it happen. I spoke with Prime Minister Modi today, and I think they would very much like to see it happen.”
India, which had been sceptical about the prospects of the agreement, reacted noncommittally after the agreement was signed on February 29. India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “We note that the entire political spectrum in Afghanistan, including the government, the democratic polity and civil society, has welcomed the opportunity and hope for peace and stability generated by these agreements.”
He pointedly added India will continue to support the “government and people” of Afghanistan.
The joint statement at the end of the visit said, “President Trump welcomed India’s role in continuing to provide development and security assistance to help stabilise and provide connectivity in Afghanistan.” That would be moot if the Taliban gets power, as would the hopes of “a united, sovereign, democratic, inclusive, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan” and the “preservation of the gains of the last 18 years.”
Pakistan, the patron of the Taliban, held the key to any agreement to end the 19-year war and Trump was careful to stay on Islamabad’s good side, having skipped a hyphenating visit there. He gave Islamabad credit on the terrorism front saying at the Ahmedabad rally, “The United States is also working productively with Pakistan to confront terrorists who operate on its soil.”
That may have rankled the hypersensitive in India. Trump made the point again at his news conference in New Delhi: “I have a very good relationship with the (Pakistan) Prime Minister (Imran) Khan. Very good.” Trump avoided the M-word – mediation – with an oblique offer to “help” because of his good relations with Modi and Khan.
“Kashmir,” Trump said, “has been a thorn in a lot of people’s sides for a long time. And there are two sides to every story, but they’ve been working on that very hard.” Although Trump avoided further mentions of Pakistan in his remarks, he joined Modi in the joint statement to denounce “any use of terrorist proxies” and strongly condemn cross-border terrorism in all its forms.
The statement added, “They call on Pakistan to ensure that no territory under its control is used to launch terrorist attacks and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of such attacks, including 26/11Mumbai and Pathankot. They called for concerted action against all terrorist groups, including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, TTP, D-Company, and all their affiliates.”
The Republican Party and Trump’s supporters have boasted on social media about the crowds Trump drew in Ahmedabad to make the case that he was internationally acknowledged as a leader rebutting the US opposition’s portrayal of him as friendless internationally.
Trump put the crowd numbers he expected at between 5 and 10 million before going to India, but back home at the South Carolina rally he modestly said that he drew a crowd of 140,000 to 160,000 at the Ahmedabad “Namaste Trump!” and confessed, jocularly, that it was “hard to be enthused” by the comparatively smaller crowds in the US.
At the Ahmedabad rally, he rattled off as he does at his US meetings priming the voters for November his achievements like low unemployment rates, a booming economy, high business confidence and the military “completely rebuilt” with $2.5 trillion.
And as he does in friendly US states, he was over the top in his praise of India as in these examples: “One of the most amazing nations anywhere in the world;” “a nation that rises by setting its people free and unleashing them to chase their dreams,” and “India will soon be the home of the biggest middle class anywhere in the world.”
His Ahmedabad speech could well be also a Modi stump speech as it listed his achievements and expectations.
Trump’s interaction with representatives of Indian companies operating in the US was openly partisan. He said, “The Democrats are so radical, so out of control, they honestly don’t know what they’re doing.”
And the titans of Indian industry listed their investments and job creation in the US, with praise for his policies. Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani even credited Trump for the tax cuts in India, which he said resulted from “the entire ripple effect” of his tax cuts in the US. But for it, he said, “In India, we could have never imagined the income tax rates have gone down with Prime Minister Modi.”
If the adulation of Trump and the rally made it seem like India was the 51st state in Trump’s re-election campaign, it may be because Modi bets on the re-election of a tough, right-wing hardliner with whom he shares some characteristics.
That assumption is laden with risks if a Democrat were to be elected in November. So far India-US ties have stayed above the partisan fray.
New Delhi relations with Washington had an inflexion point when the dust of the Soviet Union’s collapse settled and India was no longer weighed down by non-alignment that had, in reality, become a Moscow tilt and Bill Clinton became president.
Despite the initial missteps by Clinton’s administration when his Secretary of State Madeline Albright backed a plebiscite in Kashmir and Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel announced that the US did not recognise the accession of Kashmir to India by Maharaja Hari Singh, the relations between the two began to grow with bipartisan support through Republican and Democratic administrations.
But any interpretation of helping Trump’s re-election could erode Democratic sympathies, with the Kashmir and human rights issue as convenient pegs for criticism. Recently there was a subtle hint of what could be in store beyond the public criticism of India on those two issues by directly trying to undermine India.
A carefully crafted leak to Reuters after an intelligence briefing to the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee on the coronavirus said India was under intelligence surveillance for the disease and there was a “warning” about “serious concerns” about the country.
“US agencies would use a wide range of intelligence tools, ranging from undercover informants to electronic eavesdropping tools, to track the virus’ impact,” Reuters said in the story singling out Iran and India based on its purported leaks.
The much-anticipated trade deal between the two countries, whose growing trade in excess of $142 billion, did not happen and both Modi and Trump said that the negotiations would continue.
Trump gave importance to energy sector the bright sport for the US in the trade relations. He brought along his Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who said the oil exports to India had risen tenfold to 250,000 barrels per day, and ExxonMobil LNG Market Development Chairman Alex Volkov, who signed a deal with Indian Oil for gas distribution.
The only noticeable foray into domestic affairs of India was Trump saying that he had spoken to Modi about religious freedom issues involving Muslims and Christians and added, “I had a very powerful answer from the Prime Minister.”
(The writer is a New York-based journalist who is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies)
(This article has been reproduced here in arrangement with the South Asia Monitor – https://southasiamonitor.org)