Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 27, 2020
Trump pushed the right buttons but agitators pushed the wrong ones President Donald Trump’s 36 hours in India to celebrate and strengthen a critical partnership became a “split-screen” affair – images of pomp and ceremony on the one side and communal violence on the other. Parts of India’s capital burst into flames during a visit on which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had staked his personal prestige. It was surely not how he might have envisioned the high-profile get together with his powerful “friend” whom he has so assiduously cultivated. The grand spectacle of the Ahmedabad welcome for Trump was marred somewhat because Delhi Police and the Home Ministry failed in their most basic task. But Trump, effusive in his praise, declared his two days in India “incredible” – he was clearly impressed by the number of people assembled to welcome him at Motera stadium. And he left with a few concrete gains he can showcase even if a trade agreement didn’t materialize in time. Trump has in his pocket a $3 billion deal for Romeo and Apache military helicopters, a promise by India to raise its energy imports from $7 billion in 2019 to $9 in 2020 and an agreement between ExxonMobil and Indian Oil Corporation for delivery of natural gas. In addition, the joint statement promised to “promptly” conclude the current trade talks put in place “phase one” of a future bilateral trade agreement. The ambition of the partnership remains solid – it was rechristened as the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership – and India remains one of the main pillars of the Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The two sides coordinate their policies on Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh to a greater extent than before. In his public appearances, Trump pushed all the right buttons and said all the right things. He made a pointed reference to China’s coercive behaviour without naming it. He emphasized the “love” and “respect” America has for India and its democratic system in front of a large, cheering crowd – an image that may soon appear in a campaign ad designed to appeal to Indian Americans in the 2020 presidential election. Even a thin slice of the Indian American vote, which goes overwhelmingly to the Democrats, could prove useful for Trump in battleground states. The fact that Trump is even pursuing the vote is important for some Indian Americans who generally get lumped with other Asian Americans. Most importantly for the Modi government and for its supporters in the US, Trump declined to comment on the violence in Delhi and its cause – the Citizenship Amendment Act. He acted like a seasoned diplomat not his usual expansive self to the great relief of officials on both sides. In fact, he expressed confidence in Modi’s leadership and bolstered his host, something that will no doubt be seen by the BJP as an endorsement of the controversial domestic policies the government has implemented since last year. “He (Modi) wants his people to have religious freedom and very strongly,” Trump declared emphatically. His conclusion was apparently based on the discussion the two leaders had on the issue of minority rights. Trump’s willingness to side with Modi was compared by the US media to his willingness to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials about interference in the 2016 presidential elections and the promises of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s to give up his nuclear weapons. That is not the company Modi may want to keep. Trump Sees Commitment to Religious Freedom in India as Riots Break Out For all the support he personally extended Modi, Trump’s speech a day earlier at the Motera stadium had plenty of subtle reminders about India’s pluralism and its tradition of respecting all religious faiths. Since it was a prepared speech and he didn’t go off script, the reminders should be taken as his considered view and that of his administration. The violence in Delhi, which has left more than 34 dead and scores injured, is obviously not a good advertisement for Brand India. The rising discontent and continuing detention of political leaders in Kashmir has raised fresh concerns in Washington among both Democrats and Republicans and given rise to “split screen” reactions. As Trump returned from India, co-chairs of the India Caucus in the US Senate, Senator Mark Warner (Democrat) and Senator John Cornyn (Republican) welcomed the progress made by India and the US during his visit to expand cooperation in many areas all of which will benefit both countries. But they also said they were “alarmed by the recent violence in New Delhi” and called for “an open dialogue on issues of significant concern in order to advance our vital long-term relationship.” The two senators are not prone to acknowledging every bit of progress in bilateral relations and their statement was meant more to register their concern about rising tensions in India. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a Democrat, said on Tuesday that he was “deeply troubled” by the communal violence and stressed that the right to peaceful protest was a “key aspect” of a democratic society. Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, also a Democrat, called the violence in Delhi “horrifying.” Congressman Ro Khanna, another Indian American Democrat and co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has taken a vociferous stand against “Hindutva” politics in India. Khanna probably advises his candidate on developments in India and Sanders has grown more vocal on Twitter since violence erupted in Delhi. The Republican establishment is not pleased either. Richard N. Haass, a Republican and a former State Department official, said “one reason for India’s relative success has been that its large Muslim minority saw itself as Indian.” But this is at risk because of the government’s “truly short-sighted” exploitation of identity politics. The view in Washington on recent developments in India has become more negative over time and the tendency to give Modi the benefit of the doubt has shrunk in equal proportion. Hardcore BJP supporters dismiss all criticism as motivated and unfair. Nothing seems to alarm them, not even open calls to violence by some of their leaders. But social instability in India affects not only official sentiment but also investor sentiment in the end. That can have real ramifications and dark smoke rising above the Delhi skyline indicates a breakdown of law and order.
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