Hours before the Air Force One, nicknamed “Flying Fortress” touches down in Ahmedabad with the President of the United States (POTUS) and First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) and they board the bullet and bomb resistant limo, nicknamed “Beast”, it looks as though they will have a flawless visit with some concrete gains for both the countries. Though the crowds of millions and sales worth billions that Mr.Trump hoped for will not materialize, he will not be disappointed with either the crowd or with the arms sales. He will not see any empty seats in the stadium or slum dwellers who have been walled off or shifted. With the virtual blinkers he has been fitted with, he will see only a prosperous India with which he can do business.
Mr.Trump may have had several ideas when he accepted the invitation to visit India, such as a preliminary trade agreement, which will flood the Indian market with American agricultural products and thus achieve some semblance of trade balance, replacement of Russia as the biggest arms supplier to India, mediation between India and Pakistan to resolve the festering Kashmir issue and enlist India to clear the Afghan mess to let the Americans leave Afghanistan. But he became more realistic when the Indians refused to budge on trade issues, but agreed to give the US a defence package of USD 3.5 billion, reiterated its opposition to US or UN mediation between India and Pakistan and showed no interest in putting Indian boots on Afghan soil. “We are not treated very well by India (in trade negotiations), but I like PM Modi a lot,” Mr.Trump said. Even a mere goodwill visit would have satisfied him as India will be a strong strategic partner on account of his visit.
Since trade is the key to good relations for Mr.Trump, an effort may be made even at the last minute to have some understanding on trade issues, which will be discussed further. Since the expectation has been lowered, even an understanding on balancing trade will be a gain. But Mr.Trump’s statement that the agreement might be possible only after his re-election appeared to rule out that possibility. For India, the rock bottom is the restoration of the preferential system for Indian exports and India is willing to wait. “Whether or not there will be an announcement on a trade package is, really, wholly dependent upon what the Indians are prepared to do. That said, we have a number of significant commercial deals, which are of great significance that we are pleased to announce in a number of key sectors,” said a key American negotiator.
India became a close defence partner at the time of Mr.Obama, with co-designing and co-production of defence equipment as a part of the new dispensation. It was at that time that various enabling agreements for defence co-operation were signed. But for Mr. Trump, the real need is to sell US equipment. Any country which buys massive weapons from him will become his best friends like Saudi Arabia. The new defence package is fairly big and that should gladden Mr.Trump. He may have liked India to cancel the orders for the S-400 missiles placed with Russia, but that appears to be unacceptable to India. The old proposal for six American reactors in Andhra Pradesh has been revived, but there is no solution to the application of India’s Liability Law, which prohibits export of nuclear material to India.
Though Mr.Trump has not spoken about mediation between India and Pakistan, it is very much a passion for him since he has also been cultivated by Imran Khan. India has preempted any move by announcing that mediation is not necessary and the matter will be settled through bilateral negotiations. Mr.Trump may still pull out something out of his hat, but India will not respond.
Bilateral summits of major powers are held normally as milestones in their relationship without any particular agenda. But for historical reasons, recent US Presidential visits to India have been turning points in the relationship, which has transformed the countries from estranged democracies to engaged democracies. After the severe crisis in the relationship following Indian nuclear tests, the long Jaswant Singh-Talbott talks (1998-2000) and the nuclear deal (2008) the Presidential visits became mutually beneficial and reached new heights by 2016. But after President Donald Trump took over, new issues came up because of the new international posture of the US like rejection of globalism and America First approach. Some of them were resolved during the meetings of Mr.Trump and Mr.Modi, but another summit was necessary to build a strategic relationship.
The timing of the visit was determined by Mr.Trump as India had wanted him to come in January as the Republic Day guest. But Mr.Trump had different preoccupations ranging from the killing of Suleimani to his own impeachment. Having emerged from these trials by fire, Mr. Trump decided to visit India partly to impress his Indian voters and to secure some benefits from a trade deal, arms supply and peacemaking between India and Pakistan. Even if there are no final decisions in these matters, the visit will definitely benefit Mr.Trump.
In the fourth year, Mr.Trump has emerged as an iconoclastic nationalist, who has abandoned traditional methods of winning friends and influencing people. He has pursued his agenda for making America great with his own characteristic disrespect for past alliances and enmities. Domestically, he focused on his vote bank, including the gun lobby and the anti-abortion lobby and increased his rating. Abroad, his focus was on his adversaries rather than his allies. A second term appears to be a distinct possibility and all that he does now is part of his campaign.
For Mr.Modi, the visit itself at this time and the “Namaste Trump” celebrations will be of value. The visit will prove wrong the theory that the present protests over Kashmir and Citizenship Act have made India unpopular in the world. In actual fact, bilateral relations are not affected by internal disturbances and the nature of the Government response. Mr.Modi is rolling out the red carpet to show to the world that India can confidently deal with the most powerful country in the world despite the disturbances in the country. A couple of good words about Mr.Modi may reduce the pressure from the US Congress on him to criticise the situation in Kashmir.
China is likely to be a major topic of conversation, particularly in the context of COVID-19 and its impact on the Chinese and global economy, not to speak of the immediate threat of its spread to other countries. India and the US may also see eye to eye on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in the changing geopolitical situation. It is important that POTUS has ventured abroad for the first time after the advent of the virus.
The American voters and the world at large do not see Mr.Trump as a bull in the china shop any more. The method in his madness has made a difference to the US economy and the global order. The war clouds have receded. This new spirit has partly contributed to the possibility of a second term for him. Moreover, no credible Democratic candidate has emerged so far. But even if he does not win a second time, it is good to have him on our side during the rest of his term and, therefore, the heavy investment on his visit will be worthwhile.