New Delhi: Twelve years on from the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, after which Pakistan failed to take any action either against its masterminds or operatives, the US will set up a counter-terrorism training centre in India as part of an agreement on homeland security to be signed in Delhi on 25 February, under the watchful gaze of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump.
Details of such counter-terrorism training are being kept under wraps, but this is significant in the light of Trump’s refusal to go to Pakistan.
Trump is not the first US President not to visit Pakistan alongside a visit to India — Barack Obama didn’t go either, despite two visits to India in 2010 and 2015. This is despite the fact that Trump owes Pakistan for putting its weight behind a pact between the US and the Taliban, by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table these past several months, which will enable Trump to fulfil his campaign promise and exit from Afghanistan.
Indian officials are mighty pleased, of course, but equally, US analysts believe the Trump scheduling is significant.
Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington D.C., pointed out that Trump is bringing his wife, daughter and son-in-law to India.
“What Pakistan did regarding the Taliban is clearly not enough for a visit. On the other hand, while it’s not clear what Trump thinks of India, he seems to like Modi,” Tellis told ThePrint.
Asked why the Trump visit was important, Tellis added: “It is important because it offers PM Modi another opportunity to strengthen Trump’s perception of India as a friend — something that will matter greatly if he gets re-elected this November.”
The Modi-Trump camaraderie
It is this growing camaraderie, or as an Indian official put it, “grudging admiration for a fellow streetfighter”, that explains Trump’s participation in both spectacle and substance across Ahmedabad, Agra and Delhi, during his short 36-hour visit to India.
The official pointed out that “nobody in the Indian system, least of all Modi” had forgotten Trump’s slight against the PM at the ASEAN meeting in Manila in 2017, when he treated him like “just another Asian leader”.
But Modi refused to let the US President’s indifference mar his own ambition. Since he returned to power with a huge majority, he has gone out of his way to woo Trump. Ahmedabad and Delhi will constitute the fifth meeting between the two since May 2019, after the G-20 meeting in Osaka, the G-7 meeting in Biarritz, the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston, and their bilateral meeting in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly.
Trump has repaid the compliment by mitigating much of the State Department’s criticism on issues like Kashmir.
Citizenship and religious freedom
Despite an unnamed US senior administration official saying Saturday morning that with Modi, “President Trump will talk about our shared tradition of democracy and religious freedom… he will raise these issues, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is extremely important to this administration,” Indian officials don’t seem particularly concerned.
“We are more than prepared for any comments or questions relating to the Citizenship Act and the protests around it. At every level in the US administration, we have explained our position on this, that every country has subjectivity in terms of the naturalisation process for citizens,” said the Indian official quoted above.
In recent weeks, Indian officials have pointed out to the US side that its own naturalisation laws favour “Jews”, probably because of the Holocaust, and the Hmong people from Laos. To critical Europeans, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has said that in Spain, for example, “if you fit into the local culture”, then things are far easier for potential immigrants.
“We are more than prepared, we have a very solid case and the situation in Kashmir is evident to all envoys, including US ambassador Ken Juster,” the official said.
Tellis added: “The State Department may talk about Kashmir to India, but privately — there’s nothing significant to it though.”
Over the last year, from the Pulwama attacks to the Indian Air Force’s retaliation at Balakot and through to the revocation of Article 370 on 5 August, the Trump administration has been “quite supportive of the Indian position”, the Indian official said.
Certainly, India has helped improve the atmosphere by buying expensive US defence equipment — an official said that under Modi, India has bought equipment worth $9 billion, and is expected to sign on the dotted line for another $6 billion when Trump comes to town.
What is significant is that Indian and US defence systems and platforms are now so closely integrated that the final of the four foundational agreements, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which allows for geospatial cooperation, is likely to be signed between the two sides in March.
“Tech denial is a legacy of the Cold War, which was reaffirmed by sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests. It has taken 22 years, but the last vestiges of tech denial seem to have now been removed,” the Indian official said.
As for the much-publicised failure of the trade agreement, both sides concede that “much more conversation is needed” over data localisation and the differing views in the Indian and US establishments on the matter.
The Indian official admitted that negotiations broke down with the US not willing to bring RuPay on par with Mastercard & Visa.
“The Modi government’s big promise is to promote inclusive banking. We simply cannot differentiate between RuPay and any foreign cards,” the official said.
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