OPINION, Top Stories, US-India relations

Trump’s India visit:  More symbolism than substance

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania in front of Taj Mahal on February 24, 2020. Photo credit: PIB

The past few days have been bad ones for the Trump presidency in general due to the President’s inability to think and speak directly about the coronavirus and the markets falling precipitously. By contrast, the few days before them with his India visit were very god ones for the President himself. Here’s why.

In September of 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went from India to the United States on a ballyhooed visit. It kicked off in Houston with an event called “Howdy Modi” attended by approximately 50,000 – primarily Indian Americans. Donald Trump participated in the Houston rally.

On February 24-25, Prime Minister Modi returned the favor hosting Donald Trump on a visit called “Hello Trump”. It might more appropriately have been named “Bump Trump”.

That Bump for Trump took three primary forms: A tour and meetings that appealed to Trump’s ego and brand. Rhetoric applauding the nature of India-United States relations under the Trump administration. A bolstering of Trump’s support with Indian American voters.

Frank Islam: A trade deal is needed to strengthen U.S.-India strategic ties (February 24, 2020)

President Trump’s love of events featuring him is well known. Trump’s being the guest of honor of French President Emil Macron at the 2017 Bastille Day parade; the July 4 ceremony and fly-over that he arranged for himself at the Lincoln Memorial in 2019; and, the more than 90 “campaign rallies” that he has held in cities across the United States since his election attest to his insatiable appetite for pomp and adulation.

Before the India visit, Trump originally asserted that Prime Minister Modi had promised him that seven million people would line the streets of Ahmedabad, Modi’s home state,  to welcome him as he made the trip from the airport to Motera the world’s largest cricket stadium  where he was to speak to 110,00 people. In typical Trumpian fashion, he later raised that number to ten million. The actual attendance according to media reports was approximately 100,000 on the streets and around 110,000 in the stadium at the beginning of the Modi-Trump rally which reduced to one-half or so before its end.

In spite of the significant difference between the actual and projected numbers for this kick-off event in Ahmedabad, the Trump business brand across India was burnished. This was important for a President who unlike past presidents has not divested his business interests and whose name is associated with Trump Tower developments in four Indian cities – the most anywhere in the world outside of North America.  Those developments have been suffering due to the slow-down of India’s economy over the past eighteen to twenty-four months.

RELATED: Trump, Melania have a rendezvous at Taj Mahal on India visit (February 24, 2020)

Public statements before Trump’s short sojourn in India contributed to the halo that was created for his visit.  Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, stated, “The relations between our two countries is unshakeable… We enjoy a close partnership that grows stronger day by day.”  Speaking to the U.S. India Business Council, India’s ambassador to the U.S. Taranjit Singh Sand declared, “The U.S. India relationship is being seen as the most transformational of our time.”

The PR from the visit definitely benefited Trump with the Indian American community – especially the Hindu segment – and that is needed in the upcoming election. Traditionally, the Indian Americans have voted Democratic in national elections. In 2016 according to an exit poll, Trump received only 16 percent of that vote in total and of the Hindu vote in the 2016 elections.

India Americans in the U.S. approximates 4 million and is increasingly influential in the political arena and policy development toward India.  The Trump India visit in combination with his Howdy Modi participation will undoubtedly increase his popularity with this group, raise his vote percentage, and add to his campaign war chest because Indian Americans are recognized as large campaign contributors.

RELATED: India trade deal eludes Trump; $3 billion defense pact inked (February 25, 2020)

The India visit had other symbolic moments such as the Trump stop-overs with his wife Melania at the humble ashram of Mahatma Gandhi and the magnificent Taj Mahal. That’s not too say there were not some substantive things done in conjunction with this trip.

They all took place on the second day in meetings in New Deli between India and U.S. representatives.  Following those meetings, the major announcement in a joint statement from Modi and Trump was the signing of a $3B defense contract for India to purchase American helicopters and military equipment. Other announcements included: strengthening energy ties featuring an agreement between Exon Mobil and Indian Oil to help India import liquified natural gas; and collaborating to make 5G technology safer.

What wasn’t part of this visit was the culmination of a major, multifaceted trade deal. Trump said in his remarks at the Motera rally, India and the U.S. are working on an “incredible” and “fantastic” deal. After the New Delhi meetings, Trump proclaimed that he and Modi had made “tremendous’’ progress on a “comprehensive” trade agreement.  Given the lengthy time invested in working on a deal and reports on the conditions surrounding the current stalemate, the President’s comments must be viewed at this juncture as mere Trump hyperbole.

RELATED: India trade deal eludes Trump; $3 billion defense pact inked (February 25, 2020)

Putting this all into context, has Trump’s India visit and interactions with Modi improve India-U.S. bilateral relations? The answer is probably and incrementally. Probably because solid relations between a nation’s two leaders provide the basis for working together to move a positive policy and program agenda forward. Incrementally, because bilateral relations on matters such as the trade deal are extremely complex and hammered out at the negotiation table by seasoned professionals rather than by executives in the sitting room.

Undoubtedly, the primary beneficiaries of Trump’s visit were Trump and Modi. These strongman populist leaders command and love being center stage. These 36 hours gave them considerable prime time to themselves and to move issues such as Modi’s Kashmir intervention and Trump’s post-impeachment retaliations to the sidelines.

There was of course the violence in New Delhi during Trump’s visit that resulted in ten people being killed in the protests against Modi’s new citizenship law that excludes Muslims from other countries becoming Indian citizens  When asked about those confrontations, Trump responded in a press conference it was “up to India” to handle.

Shortly after that, Trump boarded Air Force One and winged his way back to the United States. He had gotten the bump that he wanted from his India Visit. Mission accomplished!


As Delhi burns amid Trump visit, US scholars, activists react sharply (February 25, 2020)

Namaste Trump: An election oriented trip to court Indian American voters (February 21, 2020)

Back from India, Trump targets Indian American voters with Taj, Modi ads (February 28, 2020)

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