When US President Donald Trump and Prime-Minister of India Narendra Modi, leaders of the oldest and largest democracies respectively, met in friendly embrace, visiting the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram and a stadium rally during Trump’s first visit to India on 24-25 February, 2020, terrible things happened. A wall was built to hide the slums along the route of Trump’s motorcade from the airport to the stadium in Gujarat. Poor slum dwellers had no say; their human dignity went unheeded. On 24th February, trouble started in northeast Delhi. People protested peacefully against amendments to the Citizenship law, simplifying procedures for Indian citizenship for religious minorities from neighboring countries of India, excluding Muslims. Most mainstream media ignored these protests, but ruling Bharatiya Janata Party supporters were enraged to see such “dissent” during a state visit. Clashes led to the killing of a policeman and an intelligence worker. A full-blown riot ensued, following which, at the time of writing this column, 46 were killed, hundreds injured. Majority were Muslims, but there were Hindus also. Never were state visits accompanied by such bloodshed.
Media headlines stroke bizarre chords, discussing, on one hand – the attire of Ivanka and Melania, menu of the state reception – on the other – the number of people killed and injured, inaction of police at the initial stage of the riots, responsibility of the politicians etc. The ruling party and opposition accused each other. While outside provocateurs entered the districts to escalate the riots, only unprecedented civic solidarity and courage of all inhabitants, irrespective of their faith, Hindus, Muslims or others, brought back harmony. Democracy worked better on the grassroots, not at the top.
Earlier visits of US Presidents produced catchy headlines: Covering President GeorgeBush’s 2006 visit, an English language daily wrote – “Guarding Bush is monkey business”. A photo and text explained that a chimpanzee, trained in detecting explosives was part of Bush’s security team! Hence – the headline! During President Obama’s visit, the headline “Mu-Baraсk Obama!” wittily rhymed his name and the word “Mubarak”, which is felicitation in Hindi and some other languages. President Trump’s pompous visit had no crispy headlines, but the rally in world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, was the largest in Trump’s political life.
Excessive focus on the image of two leaders overlookedless progress in trade relations, except a USD 3 billion defense contract, agreements on liquefied gas and 5G technology. Volume of US-India bilateral trade in 2019 was USD 150 billion. In the history of 21st century US-India relations, there wereo ther historical dates: visit of President Clinton in 2000, two years after India was sanctioned for its 1998 nuclear tests, and signing of the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008.
Many connect Trump’s visit with his electoral campaign, aimed at winning Indian diaspora votes. Trump was the first to meet the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey in 2016. Back then, he won one-sixth of the Indian diaspora votes, because Hillary Clinton had good relations with them, which is not the case with any of his Democratic rivals in the 2020 elections.
Trump also realizes Modi’s popularity among the 800000 strong Indian diaspora from Modi’s homestate – Gujarat. As per 2010 Census data, the number of Indian diaspora is 128000 in Florida, 103000 in Pennsylvania, more than 77000 in Michigan. These states are crucial. Thus, it is clear why Trump took part in the Ahmedabad rally, and also in the September 2019 «HowdyModi» event in Houston, speaking before 50,000 Indian-Americans.
Trump, usually exuberant, was reserved, avoiding comment on sensitive issues, saying that the visit was “unforgettable” and “extraordinary”. Despite the Modi-Trump tango, there are problems in bilateral relations. Sharp exchanges between the Minister of External Affairs of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and US Senator Lindsay Graham on the issue of Kashmir at the recent Munich Security Conference is one example.
Foreign policy has both political and professional aspects. Visits are political events and results of hard professional work. If visits do not yield results, the dialog of professionals-diplomats still go on. The political aspect, subject to change, should ideally be based on shared views, values and not only on personal relations of leaders or support to one political party or side. To recall, US attitude towards Modi has a rocky past. Modi is the only one to have faced a US travel ban under the International Religious Freedom Act because of the 2002 Gujarat riots, killing 2000. When Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, this ban was withdrawn. Protests on the Citizenship amendment law in India are not likely to stop. Further political polarization in India, US elections, political future of the leaders will dominate over the strategic work of foreign policy in 2020 and impact US-India dialog. The issue is: in all these processes, what place will fundamental democratic values have, which unite the two countries?
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