Was day 1 of US President Donald Trump in India all spectacle? The answer is yes and no. There are three themes that clearly stand out in Trump’s speech at the Motera stadium.
First is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has discarded the neutral approach towards US elections. Perceiving that the Democrats have gone too far to be appeased, he is now clearly backing Trump as far as he can within the limits of international relations. Second, Modi’s backing of Trump is part of a quid pro quo, where India will get unequivocal support from the US on issues such as China, Islamic terror and citizenship. The third takeaway is that while Trump extracts huge deals from other countries for similar support, he will not seek such exorbitant pacts from India at a time of economic distress. In short, India seems to have pulled off the best it could under difficult circumstances.
Spectacle has historically been an important part of Indian diplomacy, especially when the economy is in the doldrums. Much of this has had to do with India’s poverty and lack of resources on the international stage. It was for this reason that former US President Eisenhower was given a civic reception and that was followed up by one for Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin. In fact, public spectacles for superpower heads of states were the norm when India was down in the dumps. Appropriate then that during the period of India’s economic ascendancy, starting from Narasimha Rao through to Manmohan Singh, such spectacles weren’t staged, simply because India had a lot to offer economically. We can ignore the Taj Mahal visit because you know, every visiting dignitary and his/her golden retriever go to the world-famous architecture.
On Pakistan’s role
Although we seem to have gone back to the time of economic woes, this time, the point of the spectacle was to demonstrate that politically the US backs us. Two sharp statements from Trump buttress this point. The first was his comparison of China to India, describing China as a country that had risen through coercion, intimidation and control of its own population. This he contrasted to India, that had risen through freeing its people and unleashing their potential. This is not new, but a direct contrast in such sharp terms has simply not been done before by a US president.
The second and possibly more significant statement was that for the first time, a US president added the word Islamic to the previously stated India-US joint fight against terror. Unsurprisingly, this drew huge applause from the audience. But those present did not receive well Trump’s praise of Pakistan as a great country that was cooperating with the US to reduce terrorism directed at India. This juxtaposition is significant. It shows that Trump isn’t afraid to jettison an even-handed approach by going so far as to specify the joint threat by its religious character.
But if he is going to choose sides and support India, then India has to be as unequivocal in its support of the US as, say, Israel is, where again, Trump has discarded any pretence of impartiality. The praise for Pakistan, therefore, was not just an acknowledgement that the country is indispensable in aiding the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was also a message to India that if the country wants to break US’ dependence on Pakistan, it should volunteer to do some heavy lifting in Afghanistan. Simply complaining from the sidelines isn’t enough.
Silent on internal matters
Another positive takeaway for India on Monday was that the US President did not mention any of the issues that are driving the domestic political debate in the country — anti-CAA/NRC/NPR protests or the Kashmir lockdown. Given how Trump praised India on its democratic values, he felt absolutely no need to juxtapose or moderate that praise with even the mildest of criticism.
When Bill Clinton had given a speech at a joint sitting of Parliament, he still felt the need to tick off India over the nuclear tests. During Obama and Bush visits, there were no domestic issues in India that had grabbed global attention. However, for Trump to have ignored raging national debates that have had echoes in the US, including in Congress, was significant. Interestingly, his one pronouncement on the citizenship issue that every country had the right to list its citizens was clearly a mark of support.
Considering that Trump is seeking re-election back home, one simply couldn’t help but conclude that the rally in Ahmedabad was a favour returned for the Howdy, Modi! event last year, which was for all effects and purposes as blatant a Trump reflection rally as could be done within the confines of protocol.
Consider this: the two people prominently mentioned in Trump’s speech were Sardar Patel & Modi, with a passing reference to Gandhi. All the achievements listed were those of Modi, be it rural electrification or rural sanitation. And as if on cue, Modi followed it up with his own government’s achievements. Trump’s announcement that the US would sign a $3 billion defence deal with India on Tuesday was a message to his voters back home.
What are we to conclude from Trump’s speech? Given how bad the Indian economy is doing, to have Trump take such a pronounced pro-India position, and not mention issues like a growing trade deficit or lecture India on democratic values, only works in our favour.
What happened on Monday — despite the slum wall, the garba dancers & “Swamy Viveka-munda-nunda” was fairly remarkable and shows a well-grounded approach to managing the relationship. One only hopes, the same talent would be on display when it comes to handling the economy, which would obviate the need for such fun (but entirely avoidable) jamborees in the future.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.