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Modi-Trump meet: Who will say what?

By B S Prakash
June 21, 2017 08:52 IST
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'Even in this age of strong, self-willed and authoritarian leaders, spontaneous gestures and off-the-cuff remarks, a script is still written in the foreign ministries and offices of PMs and presidents,' notes Ambassador B S Prakash, imagining the 'talking points' for the India-US summit on June 26.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Modi Trump

To each his habit.

Ask a top Air India executive as to what springs to his mind about the forthcoming trip by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States and his thoughts turn to flight paths and the possible halts enroute.

Ask Modi's sartorial sahayak (he must be having one, given the style), and his impulses will be to mentally plan the colour of the prime ministerial kurta or the bandgala to stand out against the White House drapery.

And ask me, a professional diplomat, having seen my share of such summits, and I start thinking about 'the script', in other words, what should the 'principals' ideally say to each other and to what end.

Believe me, even in this age of strong, self-willed and authoritarian leaders, spontaneous gestures, and off-the-cuff remarks, a script is still written in the foreign ministries and offices of PMs and presidents, preparatory to important meetings.

It is another matter whether it is followed or even read.

But as I said, given my proclivities, it is perhaps habitual for me to imagine what the 'talking points' are for the next India-US bilateral summit on June 26.

Hitherto, the 'brief' -- the document prepared for the leaders outlining the issues -- had some standard and predictable elements.

The introductory section could safely begin with the recognition that both India and the US shared 'common values and common interests'.

Common values? Simple enough -- both were committed to democracy, one was the oldest, and the other the largest.

We both believed in other worthy ideals: The rule of law, respect for human rights, commitment to freedom and pluralism and more of this nature.

(Whatever be the reality, the US supporting authoritarian or military regimes; selectively targeting its human rights judgments; at least the ideals were asserted.)

Then, there was an iteration of 'global interests': Benefits of global economic growth, freer trade, counter-terrorism, containing climate change, reform of the United Nations system and such like.

The substantive part was the specifics: Defence agreements, nuclear deal follow-up, trade and investment issues, divergences regarding Pakistan or Afghanistan, attitude towards China, balance of power in Asia-Pacific.

These difficult issues were dealt with in detail and the oral briefing to leaders focused on how best to advance our interests on such contentious matters.

Finally, there was the all too important question of the 'deliverables'.

What do we aim to get from this visit? What specific understandings or 'outcomes'?

And, overall, how will the visit be perceived internationally?

Even more important, how will it be seen, domestically?

The brief normally covered all this.

This time it will be different.

Some reasons are obvious; others need to be identified.

First, this being the first face-to-face between the two leaders, the meeting is being billed as a 'get to know' and without pomp or frills.

Though it must be said that the first meeting between Trump and Xi Jinping of China abounded in ceremony and chocolate cake. But never mind. Apart from China being the only other 'indispensable power' and, therefore, getting some extra deference, Trump cannot dine on his favorite steak with Modi.

Second, the meeting is said to be all about developing the elusive 'personal chemistry' between the two leaders.

This aspect is all too real and crucial, though difficult to describe.

The history of India-US relations has been affected by the legendary 'chemistry' negative or positive as in the cases of Indira Gandhi-Richard Nixon (hostile), Morarji Desai-Jimmy Carter (negative), Indira-Ronald Reagan (positive), Manmohan Singh-George W Bush (effusive), Narendra Modi-Barack Obama (energetic).

We had thought that we had reached a stage where the foundational principles of the relationship would make the personal equations less salient and the issues more important, but that may not be the case.

The un-stateable reason as to why this time is different is also because Trump has revealed enough so far to make us believe that he does not follow any script.

Not that he does not need them; he most certainly does, given his immense ignorance and the enormous potency of the presidency.

But his personality is such that what he may say in an interaction and even worse, what he may tweet later is unpredictable and at times incomprehensible.

In the early days of the Trump presidency, some commentators in India had tried to find similarities between him and Modi. Both were dubbed as strong-willed, unconventional, decisive.

In my view, any search for commonality beyond these traits is mistaken.

Those of us who follow the senior-bureaucratic gossip in Delhi have come to learn that Modi masters his brief, is meticulous in his preparation for any meeting, listens to his advisers closely though he may over-rule them, and has a clear-eyed view of the desired 'outcomes'.

Thus, Modi will ask for a script; no doubt about it, though he may improvise or transcend it, depending on how the meeting proceeds.

In contrast, from all accounts, Trump revels in chaos.

He does not read his briefs or listen to advice, is disdainful of details, is kaan ka kachcha (swayed by gossip), and is quintessentially unscripted.

How do we know all this?

Unlike the Modi durbar from which very little is leaked, the Trump court yields gossip about his ways and tantrums every day.

Going beyond the personality factors, the priorities and policies have also changed, quite dramatically. Let us compare them with the traditional brief that I had sketched above.

Under Trump, America has stopped paying even lip service to democratic ideals and human rights, as it customarily did. Trump has shown affinity for Egypt's Sisi, the Philippines's Duterte, Saudi Arabia's King Salman -- not exactly admirers of Jeffersonian ideals.

Trump does not believe in globalization, its possible benefits, or the role of the US in shaping the world order.

His 'America First' impulse also translates as 'could not care less for the rest' (and that includes planet earth).

His core belief and style is described as 'transactional', and his Art of Living is encapsulated in his ghostwritten bestseller The Art of the Deal.

His first principles are 'What's in it for me?', and many Americans have begun to wonder whether even as president, the 'me' stands for the country or for himself and his family.

Not much scope for 'common values or shared vision', then.

There is already an emerging consensus in the commentariat of our strategic community that Modi too should think 'transactional': What does India want and what can India give.

Who better to go transactional than a chatur Gujarati?

In terms of specifics, America already has some grouses against us: We steal their jobs; demand billions and billions to control our mess; we don't buy enough American goods; we do not automatically opt for their 'beautiful weapons'.

Apart from countering all these, as best as Modi can, we also have our persistent issues: Pakistan support to terrorism, US support to Pakistan, less than enough support for us on the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Thus, there is plenty on the transactional agenda.

The key is in reaching some deals, and somehow enough of them to enable Trump to proclaim that 'jobs are being created in America'!

We will watch with baited breath as to how all this will turn out.

Primarily, the optics and the personal chemistry, and secondarily, the agenda.

However, even after the visit is over, we will have to spend a sleepless night to see how the tweets may sound.

In my reading, the best case scenario for a TTT (Trump Tweet Trivia) after the visit is: 'Terrific meeting with my new friend Modi. Two great democracies. Look forward to taking Melania to Taj Mahal next year'

And the worst? 'Had a terrific meeting with Indian leader Modi. Must do more for beautiful Kashmir, though. Send Jared to sort out?'

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador and a long-standing Rediff columnist.
Please read his earlier columns here

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