Trump in India: Short on substance, mutual PR and eyes on US election

US President refused to restore favourable tariff or Visa regulations for India. His trip aimed at swinging Indian-American votes.He broached religious freedom to placate Christian evangelical groups

Trump in India: Short on substance, mutual PR and eyes on US election
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Ashis Ray

Donald Trump’s 36-hour visit to India, super-hyped by his host Narendra Modi, got overshadowed by violence in Delhi.

The Washington Post recorded Trump “refused to discuss a controversial new citizenship law that set off protests across the country”. This came, the paper wrote “amid the worst outbreak of communal violence in India’s capital in decades”. It went on to bemoan: “The Modi government has made large strides in recent months toward its agenda of emphasising Hindu primacy in India.”

The United States capital’s leading newspaper concluded the sojourn “was long on symbolism and short on substance”.

It expanded: “A much-discussed deal to resolve long-standing differences over trade remains elusive. The Indian government released a list of three paltry agreements concluded during the visit: joint memorandums on mental health and medical-device safety, plus a letter of cooperation between energy companies.”

Indeed, the Post could not resist a dig at Modi. It highlighted Trump’s solo appearance at a news conference in Delhi, going on to say: “Modi is notorious for not having held a news conference in his six years as Prime Mminister.”

In contrast, Trump may resent vast sections of US media, but doesn’t run away from them. Right-wing Fox News while attacking its “liberal” rival CNN actually exemplified this by focusing on the verbal duel between Trump and CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta at the Delhi press conference, at which the journalist retorted back in no uncertain terms.

The US’s commercial capital’s iconic morning broadsheet, The New York Times, headlined its story as: “New Delhi Streets Turn Into Battleground as Trump Visits.” In another heading it blazed: “Modi and Trump: A Great Deal of Talk, but No Trade Deal.”

Delving deeper, it described: “In one part of New Delhi, President Trump was sightseeing and talking about his warm relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In another, a neighbourhood was ripping apart in flames, along religious lines.”

It commented: “This kind of communal violence has left a lasting mark on Mr Modi’s legacy. In 2002, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat State, sectarian riots left more than 1,000 people dead – almost 800 of them Muslims killed by Hindu mobs. He and his state government were accused of quietly ordering the police to stand by as the violence raged. He has denied those accusations, and in 2012, an investigative panel for the Supreme Court found no evidence to charge him. But until he won the post of prime minister in 2014, he was banned from entering the United States because of the suspicion hanging over him.”

France is arguably today India’s closest ally among the powerful permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council.

What its distinguished daily, Le Monde, reports impacts on the public, lawmakers and the government. Its despatch on the Trump trip said “extremely violent inter-community clashes engulfed New Delhi”. It added: “They undoubtedly mark a new stage in the protest against the citizenship law which has been going on for two months.” It further noted in a sub-heading: “Not a word about the tensions or the situation in Kashmir.”

No sooner Trump boarded Air Force One to return home, CBS News pointed out, “India has 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities”, citing IQAir’s latest world air quality report. Four Indian cities were listed in the top 10. It named and shamed Ghaziabad as the most polluted city in the world.

While a majority of Indians approve of Trump, he in turn cares two hoots about India. His concern for consolidating the US-India relationship is also unserious, as testified by his unsympathetic attitude on tariff concessions previously enjoyed by India and the quantum of work visas Indian professionals were hitherto entitled to; without any urgent desire to resolve these. A stand-alone air-dash to India was, thus, essentially about beaming video to American voters in a bid to secure re-election in November.

Marc Lotter, who heads Trump’s campaign, made no bones about this in an interview to CNN. He stated the pictures from Ahmedabad were “very well received” in the US; and declared Trump “will go after any vote” in a micro-targeting of the electorate. This was a reference to Indian-Americans, 84% of who did not vote for Trump in 2016. In at least three US states won by the incumbent by around a 1% margin, more Indian-Americans swinging his way could help him considerably.

In its live reportage from India, CNN touched on the “dismay” felt by Indian Muslims by the recent Citizenship Amendment Act, which debars even persecuted Muslims in neighbouring countries from acquiring Indian nationality, and the threatened National Register of Citizens, which appears to aim at rendering swatches of Muslim in India stateless. And equally the “horror” sensed by secular Indians at these moves.

Trump admitted to raising the issue of “religious freedom” with Modi and sounded naively satisfied by his interlocutor’s reply. Noticeably at the news conference, he didn’t fail to mention he had discussed the condition of Christians in the current Indian circumstances. He can now report back to evangelical groups in the US – a vote bank for him - that he did address their worries.

As various western media put it, the tour was “a mutual PR exercise” between him and Modi. In the case of the latter, to shore up his sagging credibility in the wake of sustained public opposition to his nasty policies. The premeditated praise Trump lavished on Modi – which had no semblance to reality – was undone, though, by blood on the streets of Delhi.

The astonishing failure of Modi and his henchman, home minister Amit Shah, who was also his right hand man during the Gujarat riots, to maintain law and order or their unwillingness to act decisively – such as not imposing curfews – will register glaringly, if an international inquisition takes place.

The international wire service Agence France-Presse unforgivingly pointed to Trump’s awful pronunciation of Indian names in his speech at the cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. “Trump incorrectly pronounced the name of India’s greatest ever player as ‘Soo-chin Tendul-kerr’.” It continued: “Trump also tripped over other words, including Ahmedabad (‘Ahba-bard’) and the word tea-seller – ‘chaiwalla’ – which he pronounced as ‘cheewalla’, and he himself chuckled at his attempt to pronounce the name of Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda (‘Swami Vivekamandan’).”

In conclusion, notwithstanding coverage of the visit being overtaken by other events, Trump was able to wave to his constituents a $3 billion defence purchase by India. Modi was unable to demonstrate anything by way of economic gain for India from the strenuous efforts he invested at stage management.

Reacting to the deal, the front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidential contest Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Instead of selling $3 billion in weapons to enrich Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed, the United States should be partnering with India to fight climate change. We can work together to cut air pollution, create good renewable energy jobs and save our planet.”

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