The friendship between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump has survived a slap on the wrist, outrage over the latter’s mediation offer on Kashmir and a vague rebuke over India’s “very high” tariffs. And now, after turning down earlier invitations, the US President will finally be in India in a couple of days.
Trump, whose off-the-cuff remarks have sent the Indian government into damage control mode several times (see here and here), has a packed schedule over his two-day visit, ranging from attending an extravagant event at the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad to potentially fending off raucous monkeys at the Taj Mahal.
The highlight will undoubtedly be the ‘Namaste Trump’ event — on the lines of ‘Howdy Modi’ at Houston in the US last year — in Ahmedabad, though the government is now facing uncomfortable questions about the mysterious organisation that is apparently paying for it.
While his “good friend” Modi is going OTT in the preparations, Trump’s visit begs the question: why now? Why is the US President visiting India during the heat of election campaign there? What does he hope to gain out of this trip?
After Trump took office in 2017, Modi had invited him to visit India during a telephonic conversation, but that didn’t materialise.
Trump also turned down India’s invitation to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in 2019 due to “scheduling issues”. He was again invited by Modi last year to visit India while addressing the ‘Howdy Modi’ event.
“We want you to come to India with your family, and give us the privilege of welcoming you. Our friendship, and the Indian-American shared dream...we will give it a new future,” Modi said during the event.
HuffPost India spoke to two experts to understand how Trump hopes to benefit from his India trip.
‘Modi and Trump: Two populist leaders who understand each other’
“Modi knows how important the size of crowds and being in a favourable spotlight is to President Trump and so is going out of his way to promise a large crowd in Ahmedabad,” said Rani D. Mullen, Associate Professor at College of William & Mary, Virginia, and a senior visiting fellow at Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.
“Yet there is also a clear understanding in India that Trump is a president who loves to make deals, particularly in an election year in the United States. This has lent the impending visit a transactional hue, which is a change from the narrower foreign policy prism through which India has historically dealt with the United States.”
The timing of the visit, Mullen said, speaks to Trump’s need to show that he
can deliver deals, particularly with the US election coming up at the end of the year.
Mullen said that this visit is expected to focus on three areas — greater economic cooperation, a recalibration of the US-India relationship, and a reintegration of India at the heart of a strategic rebalance in Asia.
“Under the Trump administration, there has been a greater focus on the US-India bilateral economic relationship than under previous US presidencies and, showmanship aside, economic issues will dominate the visit,” she predicted.
Mullen also pointed out three possible outcomes from this visit:
- Ideally both sides would like a deal hammered out before the visit, even if it is a small trade deal, like the recently signed Phase 1 U.S.-China trade deal.
- India has already signalled that it is open to providing greater market access for American dairy and farm ranging from pecan nuts to cranberries, as well as lowering of duties on American Harley-Davidson motorcycles. India’s high tariffs on Harley-Davidsons has been frequently cited by Trump as a barrier to a trade deal and it does not cost India much to compromise on this issue since India does not import many of these bikes, nor does it produce motorbikes of this size.
- For its part India would like to gain an exemption from steel and aluminium tariffs that the Trump administration has imposed, as well as restoration of India in the preferential trade programme that, until last year, enabled India and other developing countries to export approximately 2,000 products duty-free to the US.
Both sides, Mullen added, would also want to refocus the relationship to the “India-first” South Asia policy which Trump set out at the beginning of his term.
“At a time when the Trump administration is desperate to deliver a key election-year victory in the form of a peace deal with the Taliban, even if it is only a paper peace deal, there is also more recognition of the greater weight of India in its neighbourhood. This includes the importance of India to peace in the South Asia region.”
India is also one of the key actors in the US’s strategy to counter China’s growing influence. “While India’s importance in American efforts to balance China were downgraded over the past couple of years, there is growing recognition within the Trump administration that India will be key to balancing China in the Indo-Pacific region,” Mullen added.
‘India is a safe bet for Trump’
Sangeeta Mahapatra, a research associate at the Institute of Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), told HuffPost India that “India is a safe bet” for President Trump.
“He has just been acquitted from impeachment by the Senate. In a visit to India, where a foreign leader like Prime Minister Modi, who also has high approval ratings like Trump (this is something that matters to him when it comes to his political messaging) has gone all out to give him a grand welcome, he can present himself as a superstar global leader to his core voter and woo the Indian-Americans, the richest ethnic diaspora in the U.S., before the November Presidential election.”
It will also give him a chance to show economic, energy, and defence agreements, cementing his claim of the money flowing back home, Mahapatra added.
Speaking about the timing, Mahapatra said that coming to India earlier wouldn’t have been appropriate for Trump as the countdown to the impeachment process had started.
“The impeachment process is done and dusted for him. Now it is time for re-election and while India did not figure in Trump’s State of the Union speech, it, unlike North Korea (which is a priority for Trump), can give him something concrete to show to his domestic constituency.”
Even if there are no major trade deals, Mahapatra said that the public relations exercise will go a long way in image-boosting, funding, and lobbying before the election.
“The role of the India lobby in America like the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the Indian American Committee for Political Awareness, the Indian American Forum for Political Education, and the U.S.-India Political Action Committee in building up bilateral ties has to be acknowledged here,” she added.