Both leaders have praised each other like never before. But when US President Donald Trump, on his first state visit to India, gets down to business with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 25, very little is expected to come out of it. Observers call it a meeting high on platitudes and low on substance.
Trump, who landed in Ahemdabad, the main city of Modi’s home state Gujarat, was taken for a show that had millions packed into a cricket stadium. Nearly 1,000 kilometers away in the national capital of New Delhi, riots broke out and two people were killed in clashes over a controversial citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims.
The riots follow open threats by a Delhi-based BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, who lost in the state elections a few weeks ago. His threats just before Trump’s visit to India have caused unprecedented violence in the national capital during a state visit by a foreign dignitary.
However, none of this seemed to have flustered Modi or his state guest as they came together to address a massive crowd. However, even during his speech, Trump refused to be pinned down to the specifics of a trade deal.
“We are in the early stages of discussion for an incredible trade agreement to reduce barriers of investment between the United States and India. And I am optimistic that working together, the prime minister and I can reach a fantastic deal that’s good, even fantastic for both our countries.”
When quizzed by reporters, he said the deal could come through “very soon” but declined to give any specifics. This comes in the wake of the US permanently removing India from the General System of Preferences by the office of the US Trade Representative on February 10. While the Trade Representative had threatened a “trade war” with India, this seems to have quietened down now.
Privately, Indian diplomats and Piyush Goel, the federal minister for commerce, are trying hard not to show their disappointment. Two key issues – a trade deal or restoration of the GSP status, and H1B visas for Indian techies – were key issues that Modi wanted to bring home.
On both the issues he has been given the cold shoulder, according to two Indian government officials Asia Times spoke to. “The minister [Goel] had stated that this would come through on the prime minister’s last visit to the US. But despite the euphoria of ‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston, Texas, the Americans are clear that they will not yield,” a senior official said.
But there was a lot of talk about impending arms sales to India, including maritime reconnaissance planes manufactured by Boeing.
“We make the greatest weapons ever made. Missiles. Rockets. Ships. We make the best and we are now dealing now with India. But this includes advanced air defense systems and armed and unarmed aerial vehicles,” Trump said while addressing a massive crowd in Ahemdabad.
The US State Department has cleared arms and equipment worth nearly US$1.8 billion, including radars, rifles and missiles (in addition to the drones Trump mentioned in his speech). These are all likely to come in through the Foreign Military Sales route.
There is also talk that India and the US may finally sign the third of the key four “foundational agreements” essential for Indian and US troops to work together. In September 2018, India and the US signed the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) that allows safe communications between two militaries in an operational theater.
Earlier, in 2016, both countries signed the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement). There is some hope that the two sides will soon sign the BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation). However, there is no confirmation that this will come through on Tuesday when Modi and Trump get down to bilateral discussions in New Delhi.
Top Indian government sources say that a peace deal between the US and the Taliban will figure high on the agenda. New Delhi is worried that any deal without concrete action or assurances on Pakistan will only lead to more violence. The US is keen to withdraw from Afghanistan and needs Pakistan to pitch in.
Two other areas that will be on the agenda are counter-terrorism cooperation between Indian agencies and the US Department of Homeland Security and enhancing cooperation in the QUAD, a grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia.
The reshaping of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) as the Indo-Pacific Command has also emphasized greater synergy among the members of the QUAD. However, India’s reluctance to jump into a straightforward alliance with the US against China has been a dampener. This is unlikely to change.
However, for Trump, a visit to India before the November US Presidential elections is seen as a way to firm up the Indian-American vote. For Modi, a Democrat in the White House post-November could prove to be sticky.
Most of the Democrat candidates have expressed their concern over the Modi government’s move in Kashmir in August last year to strip it of its autonomy and a controversial citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims.