Trump’s visit to India: Bonhomie belies growing trade tensions

|| Published: 2020-03-01 14:04:05 || Updated: 2020-03-01 14:04:05

US President Donald Trump arrived in India on last Monday on a two-day visit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Trump on his arrival in Ahmedabad, the home city of the Prime Minister with a very warm embrace. Tens and thousands of people lined up on both sides of the road as the motorcade made its way to the Sardar Patel or Motera cricket stadium for a mega “Namaste Trump” rally of more than 100,000 people. For Trump, the sight of packed-out crowd erupting into deafening cheers upon his arrival was an optic victory and provided some detraction from domestic controversies. At home he would struggle to rally anything between 10,0000 to 20,000 in his campaign rallies.

Trump’s entourage included Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulveney and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien among others. To shield Trump and his 12 member entourage from the sight of Ahmedabad’s teeming slums a massive wall was erected along the route to the stadium ( the joke in India now that Trump got his wall paid for by Indian tax payers but in the wrong place) and a large number of slum dwellers were evicted as well. An unprecedented scale of security precaution was put in place. An estimated 10,000 police were deployed across the city, some mounted on camels for this purpose notwithstanding the deployment of other security forces.

Yet, the preparations for welcoming Trump were not without hitch. A nine-meter arch by the VIP entrance to the stadium expected to be used by Trump collapsed only the day before the event was to take place. But it was very quickly repaired. Many also questioned the cost of US$12 million to stage the event spanning only about 3 (three) hours.

In India this mass adulation of Trump is not very unusual, notwithstanding the current domestic communally polarised politics (Hindu supremacists view Trump as an ally in their fight against Muslims). India is a country very well drilled in the practice of mass adulation of important personalities quite often elevating them to the status of gods or saints.

Many Indians referred to Trump’s visit as god coming to visit India and erected his statues in many places and offered prayers so that he gets more power to fight radical Islam and for Modi and Trump to become even much closer friends. Some places he was even worshiped as god. A group called Hindu Sena (the army of Hindus) described Trump as the saviour of all mankind and gathered a group of Hindu priests to pray for better Indo-US ties and more importantly for the re-election of Trump. Its leader Vishnu Gupta also wanted Trump and Modi to fight radical Islam and the spread of terrorism.

But adulation was not widely shared, supporters of the Communist Party of India (CPI) staged anti-Trump demonstration in New Delhi carrying banners reading “Fascist Trump go back”. Anti-Trump demonstrations also took place in Calcutta where protesters burned an effigy of Trump, as well in Gauhati in the North East and Hydrabad in the South of India

In his address to the crowd, he hailed the “Indo-US global strategic partnership” and praised Modi as an exceptional leader. He then called Modi “my true friend” and praised his rise to power from a humble origin and commended his (Modi) work fighting “radical Islamic terrorism”. But then he added a bit of an anti-climax by declaring that he has a “very good” relationship with Pakistan (something he possibly needs very badly if he were to strike deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan) which was met with a very rare moment of dead silence in an otherwise an atmosphere of continuous cheering. But while the Indian government media including the White House put out videos to show only thousands of adoring cheering Trump fans, but others on social media also posted videos of hundreds of people leaving the stadium during Trump’s speech.

Before he addressed the cheering crown at Motera stadium, he was taken for a tour of the Sabaramati Ashram, the place where Mohandas Gandhi, popularly addressed as Mahatma (great soul) launched his many agitations against the British colonial rule in the very early 20th century. Even at the Ashram a facelift was done by watering lawns and painting walls. Later Trump flew to a 17th century marble monument called Taj Mahal for a pre-sunset tour where billboards along the way proclaiming Trump “India’s best friend” were on prominent display. Then Trump declared that the marble monument “a timeless testament to the rich and diverse beauty of Indian culture”.

Modi and his ultra-right wing Hindu supremacist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been at work very hard for quite a while to entice Trump to visit India. Trump even told reporters that Modi told him that there would be 7 (seven) million people between the airport and the event. Even Indian Foreign Secretary said prior to Trump’s arrival that tens and thousands of onlookers, and artists from across the nation would greet the President at Ahmedabad. Modi desperately needed to parade Trump for his endorsement at a time of rising political protests, economic slowdown and rising unemployment.

Indians also recognise that Trump did expect a very grand reception and by according a grand reception they expected to keep him on their side. But it is also much more than Trump per se for India. The Indo-US strategic alliance has become the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy over the last two decades or so. This alliance was forged under the previous Congress-led government. And the alliance enjoys bi-partisan support in India. Also, in recent years, there has been a significant deepening of India’s strategic alliance with the US and its principal allies Australia and Japan. But also the US views India as crucial to pursue its military and strategic offensive against China. India in the process now turned itself into a frontline state in the US drive to contain China.

India is using the enhanced diplomatic, military and geopolitical power arising from its junior partnership with the US to pursue its own long-standing goal of imposing itself as the regional hegemon of the South Asian region. Trump in his public address in Ahmedabad also hailed “Indo-US global strategic partnership”. The US now places a major emphasis on India and the Indian ocean in its strategy to counter China.

The commander of the US armed forces in the Indo-Pacific Admiral Philip Davidson recently warned of a growing gap in offensive capability between China and its neighbours. He described China as a “malign” actor and was a source of instability. It may be pointed out that the importance the US now places on India and Indian Ocean to counter China strategically is reflected in the renaming of its Pacific Command into the Indo-Pacific Command in 2018. Admiral Davidson is now in command of 380,000 US service personnel in the region. The US announced its willingness to sell weapons and weapon systems to India that only sells to its “most trusted allies”.

No wonder, India announced the conclusion of a number of arms deals with the US amounting to US$3.5 billion prior to Trump’s arrival in India. Trump is also eager to boost arms sales to India both for commercial (Trump has a pathological aversion to trade deficits) and strategic reasons. Trump also talked up the arms deal and promised to provide India “with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet”. India now stands as the fourth largest arms buyer in the world while the country still remains quite wretchedly poverty-stricken.

But India’s red carpet treatment of Trump and the bonhomie belies growing trade tensions. Trump described India as the largest tariff country in the world. Both countries hit each other with retaliatory tariffs. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was responsible for leading talks with India to secure a trade deal, was not part of the Trump entourage. India and the US have failed to make a trade deal and talks ended up in a complete stalemate. Trump instead said that “big deal” on trade would come about after the US presidential election in this November. But many analysts believe nothing much will really happen except some face saving deal to present for public consumption and then continue doing business as usual.

Meanwhile, Trump’s visit to Delhi was overshadowed by mass street protests against the BJP government’s anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that has been continuing for sometimes. The CAA is just one of the ever escalating series of anti-Muslim legal and administrative actions taken by the Modi government. Modi himself came to national prominence for orchestrating the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom which resulted in the death of 2000 people. Local BJP and RSS leaders have spearheaded counter protests directed against the protesters calling for the shooting down of “traitors” and “anti-nationals”.

Reports gathered indicate Delhi BJP leader Kapil Mishra is directing the violence against Muslim population currently engulfing Delhi. Mobs of Hindu chauvinists, at the instigation of local BJP leaders chanting “Jai Shri Ram” ran amok in various parts of Delhi on Monday and Tuesday torching mosques and Muslim homes and businesses including murdering a 91-year-old Muslim woman. By Wednesday evening 24 people had died and scores had been hospitalised. A section 144 order preventing gathering of more than four people is now in force in violence torn areas of Delhi.

While US officials said that Trump would raise the issue of religious freedom with Modi, at his speech at the Ahmedabad rally on last Monday he praised Modi for democratic and tolerant leadership in India. Then at the joint press conference on last Tuesday evening he admitted that he did not discuss with Modi the communal violence on the streets Delhi and then quickly came to Modi’s s rescue and said “the Prime Minister said he wants people to have religious freedom. They have worked hard on it”.

Trump’s effusive praise for Modi is rooted in their political affinity they both share – one white supremacist and the other a Hindu supremacist. Trump’s visit to India demonstrates how ethno-religious nationalism and its counterpart fascism have taken deep roots in both the countries. They needed each other for the photo opportunity. The visit also provided Trump the opportunity to be in the theatre and being at the centre of attention. The trade deal is unlikely to go anywhere despite India has been under pressure for more than a year to conclude a trade deal to the satisfaction of the US. The defence purchase of US$3.5 billion over the next three years or so in the context of the official US defence budget is a drop in the bucket. At the state-level only anti-China strategic alliance keeps these two countries bound together.

Trump’s visit to India was designed purely to ensure that Trump was comfortable with Modi’s anti-Muslim policies and actions in India and to get a public endorsement for these. In fact, now under Modi an enormous anti-Muslim repression is in progress in various parts of the country, especially in the BJP-run states like Uttar Pradesh. Trump was, indeed, very happy and comfortable to do that as reflected in his Ahmedabad speech and what he said at the joint press conference in Delhi. Trump’s own anti-Muslim bigotry is also well known and has found official expression in his official travel bans imposed on people from six predominantly Muslim countries.

Muhammad Mahmood is

an independent economic

and political analyst.

[email protected]

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