When President Donald Trump tweeted himself as Bahubali, a fearless Indian film hero, just before he began his journey to India, it appeared ominous. The hero, who grows up in a sheltered tribal village, is driven by extraordinary forces in search of an elusive goal and goes on an adventure into a completely unfamiliar territory. Moreover, Mr.Trump’s declaration that India was not cooperating in the trade talks and that a trade agreement was shelved till the next US election and that he was going to India only because he liked Prime Minister Modi lowered expectations about the success of the visit. The only silver lining was that Mr.Trump appeared excited about being received by “millions” of Indians and the road show awaiting him in Ahmedabad. Mr.Trump’s record of having walked away from summits in Canada and Vietnam added to the anxiety of policy makers on both sides.
Thirty six hours later, however, Mr.Trump appeared subdued, not wanting to say anything controversial for fear of causing any complications even when journalists from the United States and India were throwing provocative questions at him on Kashmir, the new Citizenship Law, religious freedom and the street violence in Delhi. He mentioned his readiness to mediate between India and Pakistan only in answer to a question and that too in the context of his having good relations with both Mr.Modi and Mr.Imran Khan. Realising that his own citizenship laws were harsher than Mr. Modi’s, he clearly stated that it was an internal matter of India. The violence in Delhi, he said, would be handled by the Indian authorities. As for religious freedom, he said that he found Mr.Modi a champion of religious freedom. A collective sigh of relief went up from the Indian and US officials when Air Force One took off from the Delhi airport.
The transformation was palpable from the moment Mr.Trump arrived in Ahmedabad, participated in the roadshow and visited the evocative Sabarmati Ashram. He went through the rituals of Sabarmati like an obedient understudy, tried his hand at the charkha and wrote a tribute to Mr Modi rather than to Mr. Gandhi. He never departed from the teleprompter text at the Motera stadium. Most of what he said was about Mr. Modi’s accomplishments, India’s diversity and his own assessment of himself. The speech could be easily adapted by any Indian Ambassador for a credentials speech. It glorified India in every conceivable way. Bahubali was overtaken by two old Bollywood legends, one celebrating love (DDLJ) and the other proclaiming brotherly love (Sholay). If only his staff had tutored him how to pronounce Vivekananda and Sachin Tendulkar correctly, he would have been perfect.
The Taj Mahal visit was pure poetry even for the elderly President and his young wife and the US comedians went to town on what they were thinking and doing there. They suggested that it would have been more appropriate for his daughter and son-in-law to have savoured the air of eternal love in the monument. In Delhi, things went like clock- work and Mr.Trump meticulously copied from a paper to the visitors’ book at Rajghat. He followed the advice given by the three monkeys at Sabarmati, whom Gandhiji found from a seventeenth century Japanese sculpture, to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
What happened at Hyderabad was not known, but if the outcomes were to be an indication, there were no surprises there either and the bouquet of decisions that emerged were balanced, forward looking and fair both to the Super Power and the emerging power. If the choice was between making both sides equally happy and making them equally unhappy, the choice was the former and there were smiles all around. The Principals themselves announced the outcome which had no surprises. The initial agreement on trade, the done deal on the import of weapons, complete agreement on fighting terrorism, energy agreements, including a Memorandum of Understanding for assured supplies of liquefied gas from the US and broad understanding on use of technology and others were win-win decisions. Most important of all, the strategic partnership between the two countries was transformed into a “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership,” though there was no clear definition of the term.
“The Taming of Trump” in India should be a matter of study for all those interested in his future, particularly if he wins another term. Throughout his stay in India, the body language of Mr. Modi was like that of a lion trainer, extremely cautious, nervous and in total concentration. He had his eyes fixed on his guest for any sign of anger, frustration or sheer boredom. He kept praising Mr. Trump to engage him, prompting him to shower Mr.Modi with more and more flattery. Mr.Modi should, therefore, get credit for keeping the restless lion mesmerised with the charms of India and his host.
Needless to say, the magic of India and the pomp and show, though the number of participants was much lower than his expectations, played a role in keeping Mr. Trump on the right track. Nowhere else could he have received such a reception and that alone may have tamed him. His briefings may also have made him aware of the true potential of India for business and for countering China. His trade negotiations with China may have given him an idea of the complexities of similar negotiations with India and may have decided to use the salami tactic of slicing tiny pieces from the big fish. Did the uncertainties of the global economic and political situation caused by COVID-19 make him particularly cautious in making trade deals?
Perhaps, President Trump was conscious of the fact that he and Mr.Modi would be leading their countries for another five years and decided to keep him in good humour. The future of Indo-Pacific and Afghanistan may also have been on his mind when he was in India. Of course, he did not take such a precaution with regard to the other world leaders and did not hesitate to ride roughshod over them.
In the election year, Mr.Trump has already cultivated an image of a peace maker, a strategist and a thoughtful person, acting in the interest of his country. He demonstrated these new features in India and kept himself in control and good humour. Whether his transformation is permanent will be known when he deals with other countries, but India can take comfort in having tamed Mr.Trump.