It’s ‘the morning after Ahmedabad’. Those five words encompass the colour, fun, frolic and the ‘mazaa’ that defines an Indian celebrity welcome — and US President Donald Trump and Family got that in spades all through the day, Monday.
If it could possibly get better, it did, as Donald and Melania checked out the Taj Mahal in Agra for 15 minutes, en route to Delhi in the evening.
But through the day, in between the fulsome spectacle and TV ad breaks, the mind slid back to the summer of 1998, when the Pokhran nuclear tests shook the desert, with Indian engineers breaking the atom in controlled explosions to gatecrash India into the five-nation exclusive nuclear power club. This was followed by then US President Bill Clinton imposing humiliating sanctions on India.
That summer has since become mixed up with both memory and mythology. Did Indian nuclear physicists really study the movement of American satellites to stealthily shore up equipment in the Pokhran desert months before the first test on 11 May? And how did Pakistan test in such close succession at the end of May?
Then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright had said, “India has dug itself into a big hole.” Was she forced to eat her own words when Clinton ended India’s isolation just two years later and came on a five-day visit to the country?
Twenty years separates the Clinton and Trump visits. The world has since changed in unimaginable ways, but at least with respect to India, some things have remained the same. Here are four reasons why India remains central to the US imagination and vice versa:
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Modi and Trump
The bonhomie on display at the Motera Stadium Monday didn’t always exist between the leaders of the world’s oldest and largest democracies. US officials have been quoted saying that Trump had once “affect(ed) an Indian accent” and imitated Modi, and that at a meeting in the Oval Office in 2017, Modi commented on an imminent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by saying, “Never has a country given so much away for so little in return.”
Later, at an ASEAN summit in Manila in November 2017, Trump delivered a particularly unkind cut when he responded coldly to Modi’s hugs and the PM felt he was “treated just like any other Asian leader.” A lesser leader would have recoiled and resorted to insult, but Modi bit his lip and a few days later went to receive Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, in Hyderabad.
In the years that followed, Modi ordered the ramping up of the India-US relationship, meeting US corporates and buying American defence goods.
Trump was forced to recognise Modi as a force of nature, say Indian and US analysts, “a fellow street-fighter,” when he returned to power with an even bigger majority in 2019 Lok Sabha election.
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Early in his presidency, Trump picked up a fight with Xi Jinping’s China on trade, as he did with India on the high import tariffs on Harley Davidson bikes, chickens legs and India’s largely closed agricultural market. But even as trade czars Robert Lighthizer and Piyush Goyal exchanged both insults and negotiating positions, the Pentagon in mid-2018 renamed the Pacific Command (USPACOM) as the Indo-Pacific Command, “in view of the increasing connectivity between the Indian & Pacific Oceans”.
The rise of China as an economic powerhouse coupled with US’ waning influence among allies in South-East Asia has made Trump realise that it is only India, despite its weakening economy, which could even think of taking on the huge dragon next door.
And for the US, it has helped that India’s own boundary dispute with China continues to linger since their 1962 conflict and Beijing refuses to make any significant concessions on this front.
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Pakistan and Kashmir
Trump has had a not-so-complicated relationship with Pakistan. He realised early on that he needed the Pakistani establishment’s help with getting the Taliban on board and exit US troops from Afghanistan. A US-Taliban peace deal is finally being readied for 29 February, days after Trump returns home from India. Meanwhile, Trump has assuaged Pakistani sentiment by raising the Kashmir issue and offering mediation nine times since July 2019.
But according to US analysts, these comments should only be seen as pro forma. Trump’s scathing New Year tweet in 2018, in which he accused Pakistan of spreading “nothing but lies and deceit,” is said to define his mood in 2020 as well, which has led to his refusal to travel to Pakistan, along with India.
Also read: Trump visit not an empty spectacle without trade deal. He can still deepen defence ties
Much has been written about India’s meritocratic, hard-working, rich and influential 4 million-strong Indian-American community. So, Trump the billionaire cannot refuse to be impressed with people who came up the hard way, even if they all don’t vote for the Republican party. From Sundar Pichai to Shantanu Narayen, Indra Nooyi, Nikesh Arora and Arvind Krishna, India-US CEOs are on top of the charts. And despite the failure of a trade deal during the Trump visit, both sides seem gung-ho about the fact that a preferential trade agreement before the US elections will be signed.
After an eventful day in Ahmedabad and Agra the focus now shifts to Hyderabad House, where Prime Minister Modi and President Trump will put their own stamp on the growing India-US relationship. As for the year 1998, the memory of that long and difficult summer is surely fading away.
Why were 1998 sanctions “humiliating’? Surely, Vajpayee was wise, old, mature and experienced enough to know what to expect in return. They were mainly economic sanctions and didn’t hurt all that badly except in the newspaper headlines…. ?
I would add one more point. The US realizes that India now has a government that is inclined more towards realpolitik than lofty principles. This is amply illustrated by how India has managed its relationship with Iran in spite of Iran and US relations being at one of their lowest point.
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