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'Spectacle is a big part of why Trump is coming to India'

By ARCHANA MASIH
Last updated on: February 21, 2020 09:02 IST
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'If there were no Ahmedabad programme -- no flashy town hall event in a huge cricket stadium with thousands cheering him on -- then Trump may well have decided not to go to India.'

February 18, 2020: The Gujarat police bomb disposal squad scan a tank along the route that United States President Donald J Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi will take during Trump's visit to Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

IMAGE: February 18, 2020: The Gujarat police bomb disposal squad scan a tank along the route that United States President Donald J Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi will take during Trump's visit to Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters
 

"This is not a president who revels in globe-girdling travels or foreign policy. He is a homebody who prefers to focus on what is happening domestically -- and especially now, with his re-election campaign heating up. So for India to get him for two days, that's nothing to sneeze at," Dr Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih.

How much of a coup is Namaste Trump for Mr Modi that an American president is visiting India in an election year when traditionally first term US presidents keep traveling to the bare essential minimum? Is Namaste Trump a quid pro quo for Howdy Modi?

It is a big coup, and I can't overstate this enough.

This is a US president who is famously averse to travel, and especially to long-distance travel.

This is a president who is already in full-on re-election campaign mode, with his main priority on his political activities in the US.

Given all this, for Trump to agree to travel all the way to India -- and when there is no trade deal to be signed, no less -- that is simply extraordinary, and a big win for Modi and India.

Credit is also due to Modi for recognising that if there is one thing that can win Trump over -- and get him to travel thousands of miles when he otherwise wouldn't be inclined to -- is flattery.

Flattery and pageantry. And pomp and circumstance. Namaste Trump, which certainly can be viewed as a quid pro quo for Howdy Modi, is an event tailor-made for Trump.

I'd go so far as to say that if there were no Ahmedabad programme -- no flashy town hall event in a huge cricket stadium with thousands cheering him on -- then Trump may well have decided not to go to India.

Do you think that among world leaders Prime Minister Modi seems unique in his ability to play to President Trump's vanity?
Luring him first with an audience of 50,000 people in Houston and then Mr Trump's excited talk of 5 to 7 million people along the way from Ahmedabad airport.

Modi is certainly not alone in appealing to Trump's vanity. The Saudi government has mastered the art of flattery when it comes to Trump.

Japan's Abe Shinzo has deployed this tactic quite successfully as well. There have been mixed results when world leaders have done this.

The US-Saudi relationship is quite strong now, whereas there have been some bumps in US-Japan ties, mainly because of trade tensions.

At any rate, there is a critical mass of foreign leaders who believe that if you want to get positive results with Trump, you've got to deploy the flattery.

What remains to be seen now is what happens with US-India relations after Trump has been feted and flattered in Gujarat. It will certainly strengthen the already strong personal bond between Trump and Modi, but the jury is still out on what it will mean for the broader relationship on the whole.

How useful are such events and dramatic shows for India to achieve its desired outcomes in diplomacy, even when dealing with a famously mercurial leader like President Trump?

If one asserts that a key Indian diplomatic objective is to strengthen relations with America, and give those relations some much needed momentum following some sustained tensions on the trade side, then I think the Gujarat spectacle is a very good idea.

After all, that spectacle is a big part of why Trump is coming to India. And the mere fact that Trump is coming to India will give a major boost to the relationship -- not just because this is a case of a travel-averse president traveling to India, but because this is the President of the US.

The heft and gravitas of the office underlie the significance of the visit and its importance for bilateral ties.

What message is President Trump -- who has a reputation for being a germaphobe -- sending Asia by traveling to India at a time when China is under the coronavirus siege?

I don't think that Trump is trying to make any type of statement about coronavirus. India hasn't been hit particularly hard by the illness.

Trump is making this visit to emphasise the importance of US-India relations, for sure, but even more so to enjoy the event in Ahmedabad -- and to leverage it to appeal for Indian-American votes back in the US.

He already did this at the Howdy Modi event, and he'll do it in India as well.

Many Indian-Americans, or their families, are originally from Gujarat. For Trump to be able to say, 'I was in Gujarat and had thousands of people cheering me on' -- that is a way for him to appeal to Indian-American voters.

One would have expected the India-US trade deal to be signed and delivered during the visit, but President Trump himself has stated that that is for another time. Isn't that unusual for a famously transactional president to visit a country without a tangible outcome at the end of it?

Yes, it is a bit unusual for a famously travel-averse and transactional president to travel so far to visit a country when there is no major deal to announce.

It is also a bit of a setback for US-India relations, and it will put a damper on the trip, given that both sides had tried so hard, first to get a deal in time for Modi's visit to the US in September, and then in time for Trump's visit to India.

Trade is, of course, the traditional sore spot in US-India relations, so it would have been both a symbolic and substantive achievement for the relationship to have a commercial deal in place for Trump's visit.

All this is to say that boosters of US-India relations should be grateful that the Ahmedabad programme is confirmed. It essentially provides an insurance policy that Trump will travel to India, even if there are no deals to be signed or other major deliverables to be announced.

Are we likely to see some kind of fresh security treaty and big arms sales at the end of Trump's 36 hours in India?

I wouldn't be surprised if some type of defence deal is announced. There has been a lot in the works for quite some time, from naval helicopters to drones.

While I think it is too early, an agreement to sell drones to India would be a particularly big deal given that there has been talk about that for years.

Drone technology would put India in a better position to pursue its regional counter-terrorism goals.

A more likely deal for Trump's visit involves the naval helicopters. These are fighter craft that are important for New Delhi, given that many Indian naval ships lack helicopters altogether.

Sustained naval modernisation -- something New Delhi has undertaken for quite a few years -- is important for India if it is to be in a position to strengthen its power projection in the Indo Pacific, and this is something Washington wants as well given that it sees India as a key partner in balancing China's power in the region.

So for all these reasons, this would be a deal that makes a lot of sense for both sides. It's just a matter of pulling the final trigger in time for Trump's visit.

There is concern that Mr Modi's government is taking a risk by appearing to back Mr Trump first in Houston and now in Ahmedabad in an election that could well see a Democrat elected to office, unusual for previously cautious India. Do you think that that concern is justified?

I do think there is something odd about Modi overtly endorsing Trump as a presidential candidate. There's also something ironic about it.

The Modi government routinely asks foreign governments to stay out of India's internal matters, and yet here is Modi himself appearing to directly interfere in the US presidential election campaign.

This is a precedent that is better off not being set. And yet, it's easy to understand Modi's reasoning: It's all part of his effort to flatter Trump, and to use that flattery as a vehicle to achieve Indian aims.

Chief among those aims, one can assume, is to strengthen US-India relations and especially Modi's relationship with Trump.

Could Modi's Trump-is-my-guy strategy backfire if Trump is defeated in the election? Absolutely. But that doesn't seem to be a concern of the Modi government at this point.

Has Mr Modi gone overboard in his courtship of Mr Trump? And are there any dangers for Indian diplomacy if a Democrat wins in November, especially someone like Bernie Sanders, the antithesis of Mr Trump?

Modi hasn't gone overboard if you buy the argument that courtship and flattery are essential if you want to maximise the chance of having Trump's ear and getting him to do what you want him to do.

But certainly there are both ethical and political concerns here. The idea of one foreign leader endorsing another as a political candidate is questionable.

As for investing so much personal and political capital in supporting a foreign leader who could well be voted out of office in a matter of months? That's a high-risk, high-reward strategy at best and a reckless one at worst. Not to get too much into US election politics, but it is quite likely that Trump will be re-elected.

Still, if he loses, the next US president would be very different from Trump ideologically, politically, and personally.

I don't see the US election having major impacts on US-India relations. Despite recent bumps, including criticism of Indian policies mainly from Democrats on Capital Hill, there remains a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of a robust US-India partnership.

However, with the exception of left-of-centre Joe Biden, any Democrat that defeats Trump would be a liberal progressive and more willing to put pressure on India about Kashmir, the citizenship law, and so on. That could cause a bit of strain in bilateral relations.

Also, pairing a liberal US president with a conservative Indian prime minister could have some problematic implications for the personal chemistry of the relationship's leaders.

To be sure, the (relatively) liberal Barack Obama appeared to get on quite well with Modi. Still, Obama was less liberal than most of the 2020 Democratic election frontrunners. And Modi's current government has taken a more conservative turn from the first-term administration that engaged with the Obama White House.

Do you think Mr Trump will raise the K (for Kashmir) issue in Delhi, push India to remove the current restrictions in the valley? Will he offer to mediate? Will he push Mr Modi to talk to Imran Khan?

Ultimately one never knows what to expect with Trump. While I don't think he'll touch on the major hot-button domestic issues playing out in India now, I do think it's likely he'll mention Kashmir.

And that's because he recognises that it is a serious issue and a problem for India-Pakistan relations -- a relationship that the administration badly wants to improve, simply for the sake of the regional stability that constitutes Washington's top objective in South Asia.

That said, if Trump invokes Kashmir, expect him to speak of it in the same way that he has for quite a few months now: In effect, 'I'd be happy to intervene if both sides ask'.

In reality, India won't ask. And if India won't ask, the offer is really moot.

Because of concerns about stability implications if the India-Pakistan relationship remains tense, I wouldn't be surprised if Trump calls on Modi to talk to Imran Khan. Though both Washington and New Delhi would have to hope that Trump brings this up in a private meeting with Modi, and not at the extravaganza in Ahmedabad.

The former would be much less awkward than the latter. It's now fashionable and even desirable in India to bring up Pakistan in public political debates, but always in a highly negative and critical context.

If Trump were to use the platform of the public rally in Ahmedabad to call for Modi to talk to Khan, then you could have a very awkward moment.

I think this is unlikely; despite all the opportunities for an unscripted Trump moment, I imagine all will be done to ensure the whole thing is as well-choreographed as possible to minimise such risks. There were, so far as I can recall, no Trump gaffes at all during the Howdy Modi event.

What are the strategic objectives President Trump could set to achieve on Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon's behalf? At the end of the visit, will we see a strengthening of the India-US relationship which has tottered during President Trump's term in office?

There are several messages that Trump will emphasise in both New Delhi and Ahmedabad that reflect US objectives for its relations with India.

One is the shared goal of combating terrorism -- and this could make for some big applause lines during his comments at the rally in Ahmedabad.

Another one is a shared vision for the Indo Pacific region -- the idea of a free and open and rules based region that offers an alternative to China's own vision for the region.

And, of course, there is also the goal of eventually getting some type of trade deal -- an accord that Trump will be keen to get signed before the election.

If Trump articulates these objectives publicly while in India, he will deliver some momentum to the ongoing efforts of his and Modi's deputies to make forward progress on these goals.

What will the Trump visit bring India the nation apart from the personal optics for its prime minister?
Can we expect President Trump to mellow down on the H1B visas issue, a source of angst for India's tech companies? Or is that a no fly zone in an election year?

Immediate payoffs for this trip for New Delhi and the Indian public will be quite few and far between. Don't expect Trump to suddenly do a 360 on the H1B visa issue, or to restore GSP privileges, or to agree to take a harder line on Pakistan.

It may be ironic given that this is a relationship with many shared interests and goals, but when it comes to India's laundry list of things it is looking for right now, there is not much that Trump will be able to deliver on during this trip.

This isn't to say that nothing will emerge at all that pays immediate dividends for India. If the Seahawk naval helicopter deal is finalised, that would be a big win for India.

Same with any commitment from Trump to offer some form of modest tariff relief for some Indian goods, separate from a still-under-negotiation trade deal.

But beyond that, don't expect much. If there is one thing that has doomed US-India relations in recent years, it is misplaced expectations.

It seems that ever since the two sides concluded their civil nuclear deal some years back, there has been an expectation that every encounter between a US president and Indian prime minister will offer some major deliverable or splashy deal.

That's not the case, and it certainly won't be the case this time around. And, of course, the very civil nuclear deal that ratcheted up expectations for the future hasn't taken off as expected.

Beyond the promise of weapons transfers, will this visit achieve anything for India? In the short and long term?

I'll go back to what I said at the start. It's a major win for India's government and the Indian public -- at least for those that don't have a problem with Trump -- that a travel-averse US president fixated on campaign politics and other domestic matters is venturing to India.

This is not a president who revels in globe-girdling travels or foreign policy. He is a homebody who prefers to focus on what is happening domestically -- and especially now, with his re-election campaign heating up.

So for India to get him for two days, that's nothing to sneeze at.

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