It’s not clear what effect, if any, the visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram on Monday had on US President Donald Trump as he kicked off his 36-hour India visit, but only minutes later at Ahmedabad’s Motera Stadium, in a speech that broached a spectrum of issues, the US leader sounded the perfect military salesman as he practically insisted India bolster its defence purchases from America.
The visiting dignitary was hardly coy when he declared: “Our military has been completely rebuilt and we have completely revised our alliances around the world. We are producing the best and most feared weapons on the planet — aeroplanes, ships, guns, missiles, helicopters, etc. We make the best and are now dealing with India. The US should be India’s premier defence partner.”
In today’s context, this is an invitation to purchase defence systems more widely and deeply from the US, especially after America cleared India for the Strategic Trade Authorisation Tier 1 category in 2018, and to step up work to conclude the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of the three “foundational” agreements Washington insists on with its most important military partners.
With trade talks between the two countries not satisfactorily concluding even after two years of negotiations, Mr Trump hinted at the signing of an important agreement at a subsequent point, allowing speculation about military hardware being a key element on the US export list to India.
While the US President’s address to tens of thousands of Indians at a major public event emphasised a tighter alliance framework with India, leaving few doubts about where US priorities lie, Mr Trump’s Ahmedabad speech appeared to have a “bipartisan” aspect as well. It was not aimed at exalting the present Indian government alone, or its ideological orientation, though Mr Trump heaped profuse personal praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mr Trump spoke about India’s progress over 70 years in which it had grown into an economic powerhouse and had done so while being a “democratic, peaceful, and tolerant country”. Without naming China, he said India’s growth story had been unlike a country which may rise through “coercion”. The US leader also alluded to India pulling 216 million people out of poverty in the past decade, thus not confining himself to the Modi years which might have pleased his hosts more.
Mr Trump also alluded in positive terms to the diversity of faiths in India and its “many treasures”, such as “the sacred banks of the Ganges, the Golden Temple and Jama Masjid”. In today’s fragile communal atmosphere in the country, this was a good message to leave.
While speaking forcefully to ally with India to root out “radical Islamic terror”, the US leader noted his administration had been working successfully with Pakistan in fighting terrorism, taking care not to box Pakistan in, even as he said India had a “leadership role in promoting peace in the region”. It remains to be seen if this has any implications for India in the current context of Afghanistan, where a peace process with the Taliban is underway.