The grandeur of Indian culture was on full display as America’s President Donald Trump landed in Ahmedabad around midday on Monday, February 24. For the first time, three of his closest family members – wife Melania, daughter and senior adviser Ivanka, as well as son-in-law Jared Kushner, also a senior adviser — accompanied him on a visit abroad. India pulled out all the stops to accord a rousing welcome, the likes of which the American guests had not seen and may not ever see again. It left an indelible imprint on them.
Ever a showman, President Trump relished every moment of interacting with the 125,000-strong crowd at the newly-rebuilt Sardar Patel (Motera) Cricket Stadium, said to be the world’s biggest, which was as much in thrall of the moment. It mattered little if they did or did not understand English! What mattered was their awareness of history being written. For them it was a celebration, as they full-throatedly cheered for Mr Trump, their very special guest, as well as Narendra Modi, the son of their soil. “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people… From this day on, India will always hold a very special place in our hearts,” declared the overwhelmed visiting dignitary.
The visuals were beamed live across India, the United States and at least half the world. They will be replayed again and again during President Trump's upcoming year-long electoral campaign, permeating the boardrooms and living rooms, far and wide, that hitherto were beyond our reach. In the process Brand India and Indian tourism will receive the kind of boost that even good money could not have bought.
Such a boost is indeed required. Despite being global and strategic partners, India and the US remain a bit tentative about the best way of engaging with each other. The latter finds India sanctimonious and prickly. India considers the US prescriptive, transactional and unpredictable. America is used to having its way, one way or the other. The blunt speak of President Trump and his fixation on trade does not make matters easy.
On the eve of his India visit too, he had reiterated: “We’re going to India, and we may make a tremendous deal there... But we’re only making deals if they’re good deals, because we’re putting America first… We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot”.
While in India, he kept harping on trade and business, pointing to his success with China, Japan and other countries. He acknowledged that the bilateral trade gap was shrinking, but that India imposed world's highest tariffs (not correct!). He spoke about striking a big trade deal later in the year.
Let’s take another example. CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) was enacted near unanimously by the US Congress to primarily punish Russia, Iran and North Korea. Washington has been waving it also at India, to try and scuttle its $5.43 billion deal for S-400 Triumf missile defence systems with Russia.
Naturally, this is not acceptable to India. Russia has been a time-tested defence partner and some 65 per cent of India's imported hardware is Russian. Moreover, given India's complex security environment, it is not prudent to depend on one source for its critical defence needs. Mr Trump’s White House, pursuing the policy of “America First”, prefers to ignore such considerations.
Coming back to the visit – the tremendous mutual bonhomie, cultural diplomacy and good optics apart, what was the substantive outcome of the Trump visit? In his media address, Prime Minister Modi stated upfront: We have decided “to raise our partnership to the level of a comprehensive global — strategic partnership”.
Bilateral defence and security partnership has been noticeably reinforced in the recent period. Indian forces are now undertaking the maximum training exercises with the American military. India is already America’s “Major Defence Partner”. Tiger TRIUMP, the first-ever Tri-Services Amphibious Exercise, between India and the US took place in November 2019. Mr Trump observed that “a strong and capable Indian military supports peace, stability, and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific”.
During the visit, New Delhi agreed to source MH-60 multi-role and AH-64E Apache helicopters worth an additional $3 billion. Negotiations on procuring more defence platforms are ongoing. India has now ordered over $20 billion worth of sophisticated US military equipment since 2008.
The US, which helped India get NSG waiver in September 2008, is now exploring the feasibility of setting up six nuclear power plants of 1100 MW each. Within the framework of India-US Strategic Energy Partnership, a term agreement has been reached between ExxonMobil and Indian Oil Corporation for the former to supply gas to India. The US has since become one of the biggest producers of hydrocarbon products in the world.
The two leaders came down heavily on the “use of terrorist proxies and strongly condemned cross-border terrorism in all its forms”. They called on Pakistan “to ensure that no territory under its control is used to launch terrorist attacks, and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of such attacks, including 26/11 Mumbai and Pathankot”. Mr Trump conveyed that the US was “also working productively with Pakistan to confront terrorists who operate on its soil”.
President Trump was at his restrained best in India, conscious that he was held in high esteem by the Indian public (56 per cent of Indians view him positively, which exceeds his favourable rating back home). At his presser, he remarked with refreshing candour: “It was a fantastic two days. I’m going to be not at all controversial because I don’t want to blow the two days, plus two days of travel, on one answer — one little answer.”
All the same, there were a few “Trumpesque” moments. He unilaterally “decided” that India's population at 1.4 billion was the world's largest. At the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet, he cast convention aside by choosing to speak extempore. And his closing remarks were: “We will be back!”
“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else,” Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had once noted. While it is impossible to say anything with certainty, having taken a measure of each other, both sides may now be settling into a more robust phase of partnership, with greater mutual trust and confidence.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst and a former Indian ambassador to South Korea and high commissioner to Canada...