Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi (right) welcomes US President Donald Trump on his arrival at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad, India, on February 24, 2020. Photo: Indian Prime Minister's Office handout/Anadolu Agency

The huge crowds that greeted United States President Donald Trump on his first state visit to India seem directly disproportional to the outcome in the end. Both countries announced agreements on three minor areas, signed a deal for more military helicopters and promised a trade deal “soon.”

For years touted as “natural partners,” India and the US more often than not ended up shadow boxing with each other. The presidential visit saw a lot of pomp and warmth being rolled out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the questions around the outcome remain.

Electoral over bilateral

As a senior Indian diplomat pointed out: “The president is unlikely to see such huge crowds, even in his country. In that sense, this was a successful trip and helped him with the Indian American vote back home in November.”

But beyond the electoral gains and the personal chemistry between the two leaders, key bilateral issues continue to remain divergent. As foreign observers pointed out, the trade deal is still to come through despite months of intense discussion and Pakistan is now back in the driver’s seat as the US signs a peace deal with the Taliban.

Indian diplomats noted that despite condemning terrorism, Trump did not target Pakistan. However, in a major departure from the past, he did not go to Pakistan after his India visit. Previous US presidents and officials always made it a point of visiting both countries on official tours to South Asia.

Officially, the two countries announced three memorandums of understanding. Agreements were announced on mental health, the safety of medical products and a letter of cooperation on energy supplies.

Besides that, the US president was visibly pleased to sell some more military helicopters, including the Sikorsky MH-60R multi-role naval helicopter.

Arun Singh, a former Indian ambassador to the US and one of India’s foremost diplomats, said his assessment was that the trip proved successful.

“The visit went off quite well. The prime minister, in his media comment, referred to an unprecedented and historic welcome. Both countries are clearly looking at the future,” he told Asia Times.

Singh also believes in the potential for the relationship to grow, especially after November this year. “The prime minister emphasized that this was a defining partnership for the 21st century. President Trump said that the relationship is stronger than ever before. Both are now describing it as a ‘comprehensive global strategic partnership’. It was also a signal to the two bureaucracies that the leaders are personality invested in the relationship,” he said.

Staying on script

Indian diplomats who were part of the meeting also noticed that Trump held back on his characteristic shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy.

“Even in his private discussions with the prime minister, he seemed keen to ensure that the visit was on script. He even said as much and ensured there were no loose or critical comments, despite the issues over the citizenship law and the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir,” one diplomat said.

Indian diplomats were tense when sectarian riots broke out in parts of Delhi that have led to at least 32 deaths so far. However, Trump side-stepped all queries over these issues and remained optimistic.

“This could also be a message to a wider base back home that he is a leader with international standing and can deal with the globe. This was a logical follow-up to the Howdy Modi program in Houston, Texas, last year,” another former Indian diplomat who had served in the US told Asia Times.

New Delhi is still wary of the proposed US-Taliban peace deal and the primacy this will give to Pakistan. Indian strategists are confident this will put Pakistan back in the driver’s seat and give them considerable leeway and leverage.

“Clearly that is something we are not comfortable with, but President Trump gave enough assurances that our interests will be protected,” the diplomat familiar with the discussions said.

However, with India off the General System of Preferences list on trade, there is hope that this will be worked out soon.

“The two countries are looking at a comprehensive trade deal,” ambassador Singh said. On H1B visas, a key issue for Indian techies, the restrictions will continue to stay and will offer little joy to those keen to work in the US.

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