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The US president's first official visit to the subcontinent is also aimed at the millions of Indians living in the US, in the Middle East, the UK and in all other foreign shores

Why Trump's whirlwind tour of India both charms and puzzles Indians

President Trump was accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump during his first visit to India

When two of the world’s greatest showmen met on Indian soil, everyone was expecting quite the spectacle.

So, there was a lot of anticipation attached to US President Donald Trump’s visit to India last month.

It started while still mid-air. A couple of hours before Air Force One plane was to touch down at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad, in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, Trump and Modi exchanged a series of tweets: “We are eager to visit India, and on the way,” the US president tweeted in Hindi. “Atithi Devo Bhava (Guest is God)” and “India awaits your arrival,” Modi tweeted in response.

“He’s [Modi] done an incredible job. And we’re working together, I would say, better than our countries have ever worked before” – President Trump

After receiving his ‘good friend Trump’ at the airport with his signature hug, Modi treated the president and his entourage to a grand spectacle of a 22-km roadshow with ‘millions’ of people lining up on both sides wearing colourful headbands (to beat the scorching heat), a detour to the Sabarmati Ashram – set up by India’s Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi – to give Trump a photo op while trying his hands at Gandhi Ji’s pet ‘chakra’ (spinning wheel) and a public event, titled ‘Namaste Trump’ at the Motera Cricket Stadium in the city – billed as the world’s biggest cricket stadium – packed to the aisles with an estimated 110,000 audience in attendance.

The extravaganza organised by the Modi government has triggered a nationwide debate on whether there was an substance behind the visit.

The optics

“America loves India, respects India,” Trump told his audience – also aimed at the millions of Indians living in the US, the Middle East and around the world – at the cricket stadium, to roaring approval.  “India gives hope to all of humanity,” he said, striking the right chord with Indians,  both residents and NRIs, massaging their pride and giving them a reason to feel high. After all, Trump, without a doubt, is the most powerful man on earth, and his words are bound to resonate with a wider global audience.

Trump signs the visitor’s book at Gandhi Ashram – a home of Mahatma Gandhi – in Ahmedabad

The effusive bond between the two leaders was on full display at the ‘Namaste Trump’ event in Ahmedabad. The show of friendship was important for both  – for Trump to woo the 4 million Indian Americans in the November election, and for Modi to battle the nationwide protest and violent clashes in India against his government’s controversial law on citizenship.

In fact, violent clashes between pro and anti CAA (Citizen Amendment Act) protestors were taking place at some areas in Delhi in late February, killing seven and injuring hundreds of people, which some commentators describing it as the ‘side show’ to the Trump-Modi event on the main stage.

“Despite their ideological difference with Trump, his speech at the ‘Namaste Trump’ event would have evoked a positive reaction from a broad band of Indians, both in India and overseas, as they must have felt a sense of elation,” Professor Muneesh Kumar, a political commentator and professor in Delhi University, tells Arabian Business.

“We have decided to take our relationship to the level of comprehensive global strategic partnership” – Prime Minister Modi

Commentators, however, were perplexed about Trump’s message in the visitor’s book at Sabaramati Ashram. “To my great friend Prime Minister Modi…. Thank you for this wonderful visit,” was his message in the visitor’s book. The US President had no word or thought on the greatest Indian ever – Mahatma Gandhi.

After the spectacle at the Motera Cricket Stadium where Trump and Modi showered praises on each other, the Trumps – with First Lady Malania, daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and some of the high ranking US officials for his first visit to India – flew to Agra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to visit the world famous Taj Mahal. Hand-in-hand, the Trumps had a guided tour of the monument of love for almost an hour.

Melania Trump also visited a government school in Delhi and observed a happiness curriculum session – where students and teachers meditate, chat, tell stories and share jokes for 45 minutes each day.

“Spectacle is okay as it is very much part of modern diplomacy. The India side, however, should not lose sight of the four pillars of India-US engagement – trade and economic issues, security and strategic affairs, democratic values and the bipartisan approach,” K C Singh, international affairs expert and a former Indian ambassador to UAE, says.

Trump marvels at the charkha, or spinning wheel, the symbol of Gandhi’s constructive programme

With Trump indicating prior to his visit to India that comprehensive bilateral trade deals with India may not be announced during his visit, political and economic commentators are debating over what could be the outcome of the visit in terms of commercial, investment, strategic and security issues. The vexed issue of restrictions or extension of H1B visas for thousands of Indian professionals in the US has been of great concern, especially in the IT industry, and most of the US corporate majors.

The substance

The over two-hour meeting between Trump and Modi and their delgations  was the major business part of the visit. Besides a $3bn defence deal for Apache and MH-60 Romeo advanced multi-role combat helicopters for the Indian armed forces, a letter of cooperation between Exxon Mobil India, Indian Oil Corporation and India LNG Ltd with Chart Industries Inc of the US on oil and LNG, and a promise of accelerating talks on the proposed ‘great’ trade deal, there was not much immediate tangible outcomes on the economic and trade front after the bilateral talks.

The other MoUs (memorandum of understanding) that were signed were on mental health and on safety of medical products. The MoUs and the commercial deal in the energy sector have been on the agenda and widely talked about, while there had been expectation that the two leaders, who are known for their surprise decisions, would produce a rabbit out of the hat in the last minute and announce some major economic or commercial deals. But this was not to be. All that happened after the joint press statement and bilateral talks was more friendly hugging.

Prime Minister Modi, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump and at the ‘Namaste Trump’ rally

“With both India and the US insisting on their avowed policies on ‘Make in India’ and ‘US First’ respectively, the biggest challenge on the trade front is how to reconcile this with measures to grow bilateral trade and balancing it,” Ashok Jha, former commerce and finance secretary of India, tells Arabian Business.

“There are not many items on US imports list to India on which India can reduce duties… probably, except for Harley Davidson bikes,” Jha adds.

The 100 percent import duty – now reduced to 50 percent – on the iconic Harley Davidson bikes was highlighted by Trump last year to describe India as the ‘tariff king’ of the world.

Seasoned diplomats, however, explained away the disappointment in the trade and industry circles thus: “The results of a presidential visit should not be judged by its immediate results in terms of the quantitative outcomes. These talks, led by two leaders who share a great chemistry and bonhomie, will act as a catalyst for attention and acceleration of many bilateral and strategic issues which have been languishing for a long time now. So, the visit has to be assessed by their impacts on resolution of such issues on a long-term basis,” says Pavan K Varma, a former Indian diplomat.

With hopes on a comprehensive bilateral trade deal diminishing, strategic affairs experts were expecting the two sides to discuss Washington’s latest plans in the Gulf and Afghanistan and Pakistan – two countries vital to India’s economic, political and military security.

“The question is whether Modi and Trump can overcome the past reluctance in both capitals to collaborate in the regions west of India,” C Raja Mohan, director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, wrote in an opinion piece.

“On the face of it, there is a good fit between America’s downward adjustment in the Gulf region under Trump and India’s ambition to play a larger role in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean region,” Mohan said.

Diplomatic sources said while regional issues related to the Gulf, Afghanistan and  Pakistan, etc must have been discussed at the top level, the details were not spelt out.

All Trump and Modi were willing to say in public was that the two countries have decided to take Indo-US ties to a “comprehensive global partnership level”.

As they say, diplomats and statesmen hide more than they reveal. As for ordinary Indians – at home and on foreign shores – at least they got the lively show they were expecting.

Ties that bind

The relationship between the US and India had been marked with a number of historic events over the decades  (Information courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations)

August 15, 1947 India declares independence from Britain

October 13, 1949 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visits US

December 9, 1959 US President Dwight Eisenhower visits India

May 18, 1974 India completes first nuclear test

January 1, 1978 US President Jimmy Carter visits India

July 28, 1982 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi mends ties during US visit

March 20, 2000 President Bill Clinton makes the first US presidential trip to India since 1978

September 22, 2001 US lifts India sanctions

June 28, 2005 US, India signs new defence framework

March 1, 2006 President George W. Bush visits India

November 24, 2009 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh begins US state visit

April 5, 2010 US and India agrees to economic and financial partnership

November 5, 2010 President Barack Obama backs India’s bid for the UN Security Council

July 19, 2011 US, India ink cybersecurity memorandum

September 27, 2013 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes last visit to Washington

September 26, 2014 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins high-profile US visit

January 24, 2015 President Obama’s second visit to India elevates ties

June 26, 2017 Trump, Modi meet for first time at the White House

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