Ivanka Trump gave India something that had nothing to do with women and empowerment. She gave India what it still covets—effusive praise from the West.
The timing was rather ironic. While the father was making a jibe at one kind of “Indian” back in Washington DC, the daughter was buttering up another kind of Indian in Hyderabad.
Donald Trump was honouring Native American war veterans and chose that occasion to derisively refer to Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, his favourite mocking nickname for the Massachusetts senator. Meanwhile halfway across the world, Ivanka Trump was preaching to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit about “Women First, Prosperity for All” and paying fulsome tribute to her Indian hosts.
But there was more irony on display. Ivanka Trump was personally invited by Narendra Modi. The Indian prime minister is famously the anti-dynasty crusader, his ma-bete sarkar jibes still ring in people’s ears as a damning indictment of the Congress. He flaunts his own lack of family ties as proof of his immunity to nepotism. On the other hand, if dynasty were a perfume, Ivanka Trump would be its distilled essence. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are nepotism personified. She was standing at the summit not because she owned a clothing line but because she was the First Daughter.
At the summit, Ivanka said “Women, just like many of those here today, are charting their own courses and achieving incredible feats.” That too was a little ironic given that she said it at a time when a 24-year-old woman in India was going from court to court to chart her own destiny when it came to converting to another religion and marrying the man she wanted. That Ivanka is herself a convert to another religion made that irony a little more stinging.
As a brand ambassador of women’s empowerment, the theme of the summit, Ivanka is an uneasy fit. In a time of #MeToo, she has been able to do little more than pay lip service to the issue. When accusations erupted against Christian conservative Republican candidate Roy Moore about wooing underage women, Ivanka did say “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children” but her father has brushed aside those charges saying Moore has denied them. Lately, Donald Trump has even suggested the infamous Access Hollywood tape with his own vulgar comments that almost torpedoed his campaign are not real as well. Ivanka also got booed in Germany when she tried to portray her father as some kind of champion of women’s rights.
Other than an attempt to expand child tax credit, she has little to her credit when it comes to issues of women and the workplace. Her own clothing companies don’t follow what her father calls “two simple rules – buy American and hire American.” Her company, the Washington Post says relies exclusively on foreign factories in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and China. It lags behind the rest of the apparel industry in monitoring the treatment of the largely female workforce in those factories. She has technically stepped away from the helm while she works in the White House, but the company will reveal neither the factories nor its code of conduct for them. “Ivanka Trump is set to promote women empowerment in India,” tweeted Annie Gowen, Washington Post’s bureau chief in India. “Yet she won’t talk about female workers who make her clothes here for $4 a day.” And she did not. Her entire speech in Hyderabad not even cursorily mention the women who work in those factories right here in India. “Before Ivanka can claim to advocate on behalf of the women of the world, she needs to begin with the women in her own supply chain,” says Sarah Newell at the International Labour Rights Forum.
Even the much anticipated speech, carried live by so many networks, was, as Quartz points out, in parts, a rehash of the one she delivered in Tokyo earlier this month. She talked about the same things—leaving her business to serve her country, the multiplier effect of women in the workforce, the Women Entrepreneur’s Finance Initiative and she talked about in much the same language, just spiced with obligatory crowd-pleasing local touches like Hyderabad biryani and Satya Nadella.
So what did Ivanka Trump bring to merit a rapturous welcome? Beggars and dogs have been whisked off the streets, roads fixed and bridges painted to the tune of $1.85 million. Of course any city would want to put its best foot forward for a VVIP visitor and it’s happened for others like Bill Clinton, but let’s not forget that Ivanka Trump, in the end, is just a mysterious entity known as the US President’s unpaid advisor, what the German media described as “First Whisperer”. Other than reiterating the old Donald Trump line that “India has a true friend in the White House” she had little to offer about what Indian entrepreneurs would get from the US other than pretty platitudes. And how could she? The Secretary of State pointedly did not attend the summit, nor allow State Department officials higher than deputy assistant secretary to attend it. “They won’t send someone senior because they don’t want to bolster Ivanka,” an official tells CNN.
Yet India lapped it up with media comparing it to a “royal visit” which of course is another exercise in much ado about nothing. Why? That’s because Ivanka Trump gave India something that had nothing to do with women and empowerment. She gave India what it still covets—effusive praise from the West. And if it’s praise from a celebrity who can sport a Neeta Lulla dress, that’s all the sweeter. She saluted Narendra Modi saying “from your childhood selling tea to becoming prime minister, you’ve proven that transformational change is possible.” Right on cue, Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted that this was a “proud moment for India” and “Great to hear appreciation for PM for his journey from a poor family to a popular world leader.” “Ivanka bows to PM Modi” crowed the networks and promptly coined the hashtag “IvankaCheersChaiwalla”. And that’s how Ivanka Trump became India’s cup of tea.
The glitzy event and its star performer were not really about holding up a mirror to the reality of women in the workplace not in a high-powered multinational and certainly not in a garment factory. It was not even really about inspiring women to break glass ceilings. This was just a glamorous selfie for Ivanka Trump and Narendra Modi.