is a senior journalist and geopolitical analyst based in India, author of ‘How United States Shot Humanity.’ He runs the NewsBred website. Follow him on Twitter @ashish40411
US President Donald Trump had plenty of reasons to feel smug after the first day of his two-day visit to India. Despite some simmering disputes between Washington and New Delhi, day one was a triumph of optics.
From the moment he touched down on Indian soil on Monday to the time he stretched out in his presidential hotel suite in the capital in the evening, Trump saw only welcoming faces around him – in their millions.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Trump and First Lady Melania at the steps of Air Force One, after its arrival in the western city of Ahmedabad. From there, Trump’s delegation – which included the president’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner – was whisked along for a tour of the Sabarmati Ashram, the place from where Mahatma Gandhi launched a few of his most memorable agitations against the British colonial rulers in the early 20th century; and then to address the largest crowd of his political career.
A visit with an eye on domestic audiences
Tens of thousands of people lined both sides of the road, as Trump’s motorcade made its way to the 100,000 capacity Motera cricket stadium for a mega-rally. For Trump, it was an optics win, with the packed-out crowd erupting into deafening cheers upon the president’s arrival. The sight of tens of thousands of Indians wearing white ‘Namaste Trump’ caps will no doubt be used by Trump to court the votes of the 4.4 million Indian-Americans watching back stateside.
Pundits in the US treated the rally – organized in return for the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally thrown for the Indian leader in Texas last year – as another one of the president’s raucous campaign stops. “Why is President Trump going halfway around the world for a 36-hour whirlwind social call in India?” asked the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker. “Hint: Huge crowds! Did we mention the crowds?”
With the pro-wrestling pump-up tune ‘Macho Man’ blaring from loudspeakers before Trump’s speech, one rally-goer told NPR that the event felt like “a concert, but for political leaders.”
Hitting the high notes
If the rally was a concert, then Trump stuck to the more crowd-pleasing numbers. Calling Modi “my true friend,” Trump praised the Indian PM’s rise to power from his early days as an Ahmedabad tea seller, and commended his work fighting “radical Islamic terrorism.”
However, Trump’s assertion that he has a “very good” relationship with Pakistan was met with a rare moment of silence from the crowd. Still, Trump talked up a $3.5 billion defense deal, expected to be signed in New Delhi on Tuesday. Coming months after joint military drills between the two nations, Trump promised to provide “India with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet.” Shoutouts to a who’s-who of Indian sports and movie stars also drew rapturous applause from the crowd.
Theatrics masking troubles
Trump spoke at length and said all the right words, and the theatricality continued when the delegation visited the Taj Mahal in Agra, an hour’s flight from Ahmedabad. Closing out a day of feel-good photo opportunities, Trump declared the 17th century marble monument “a timeless testament to the rich and diverse beauty of Indian culture.”
All this was good optics. Yet when the Trumps return to America on Tuesday, some problems between Washington and New Delhi will remain unresolved. The Trump administration ended its preferential trade treatment for India last June, a decision that was meant to coerce New Delhi into dropping levies on US goods. The move backfired, and India placed retaliatory tariffs on dozens of American products.
And a deal is not yet in sight. Before his visit, Trump remarked that he would save the specifics of “the big deal for later,” and even before the 100,000-strong crowd on Monday, said that negotiations were in their “early stages.”
Moreover, the Trump administration has not been able to convince Modi’s government to abandon its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, despite the threat of economic sanctions. India too continues to import Iranian oil, another bone of contention between itself and the United States.
Whatever moves Trump and Modi make on Tuesday toward resolving their trading and strategic differences, the visit will not be remembered by domestic audiences for the agreements hammered out behind closed doors. Instead, viewers will remember the crowds, congratulatory speeches, and bonhomie between the two leaders.