President Donald Trump knows what he’ll be looking for when he lands in India on Monday ― and his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has a wishlist for the trip too. With their own political careers facing new threats at home, the two ultra-nationalist leaders are putting on a show that they hope will have global ramifications.
“We’ll have seven million people between the airport and the event,” Trump said on Wednesday, referring to a “Namaste Trump” rally planned for a 110,000-seat cricket stadium in the city of Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The president’s biggest foreign trip of this election year so far is a chance to show that, as he frequently claims despite evidence to the contrary, he has made America more respected worldwide ― and to revel in the displays of adoration he enjoys.
(Ahmedabad’s population is estimated to be eight-and-a-half million. To make Trump’s vision a reality, 80% of the city would have to participate in the roadshow.)
Modi wants to bolster his narrative that, in the words of his senior ally and home affairs minister Amit Shah, he has “put India on the world stage as a leading voice.” International attention has been a major concern of his for years. When first elected prime minister in 2014, Modi pitched himself as a reformer for the world’s most populous democracy who would make it a top player in the global economy and world politics. Now he’s facing tough foreign criticism for targeting his country’s millions-strong Muslim minority and making Indian society less tolerant of dissent ― and he’s keen to prove that doesn’t make him a pariah. Throughout, he’s relied on support and financial backing from Indians abroad.
Both politicians have great expectations for how Trump’s India visit will pay off, just five months after their high-profile “Howdy Modi” event in Texas. But for all their ideological and personal affinity as fellow practitioners of the politics of bigotry, authoritarianism and sycophancy, they’re both likely in for some serious disappointments.
Modi Faces Unprecedented Pressure
NEW DELHI ― India is stuck in its worst economic slump in over a decade and Modi’s government has been accused of hiding unemployment data. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost five state elections in a row. But with Trump at his side, Modi wants Indians to believe that he is building a world of economic opportunities for them ― and he can use his mammoth social media operation and national political dominance to drive that message home.
India is one of the few countries where the common perception of the U.S. has not seriously wavered since Trump’s election, and Washington is chiefly perceived as key to New Delhi’s global aspirations. “Obama is a kind man. Trump is a stubborn man. He does what he has to do and does not care what anyone else says. He is a strong leader,” said Balwinder Singh, a taxi service provider in New Delhi, sharing his thoughts on Trump and former President Barack Obama. “I feel good that Trump is coming to India.”
Meanwhile, Modi has doubled down on a divisive political strategy that scapegoats India’s Muslim minority. Since winning reelection with an overwhelming majority in 2019, he has revoked the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, subjecting it to an influx of troops; mass arrests of politicians, activists, lawyers and even children; and the longest internet shutdown ever witnessed in a democracy. In December, Modi passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which he called an attempt to help minorities in neighboring Muslim countries but which in effect made it harder for Muslims to secure Indian citizenship. Shah, his top deputy on domestic issues, has used the word “termites” to describe people living without documents in India, many of whom are Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh.
A widely shared video of strangers hounding a Hindu girl for sitting in a restaurant with a Muslim boy demonstrated recently how intolerant India has become. Most media outlets are parroting the government line by pushing messages like the claim that Kashmiris welcomed the loss of their relative independence.
Amid his illiberal turn, Modi will use Trump’s visit to try to show that he’s still a powerful and respected leader.
The prime minister is under unprecedented pressure as hundreds of thousands of people across India have joined demonstrations against his citizenship act and the possibility of similar policies in the future, taking to the streets again and again despite crackdowns by Modi’s party. “I think they are thinking that if they don’t speak out as Muslims now, then they will never speak out,” Dina M. Siddiqi, a professor of anthropology at New York University, told HuffPost India last week.
Modi has been clear about seeing political benefits to his relationship with the U.S., and some analysts describe him as India’s most American-friendly prime minister ever. He’s tilted toward Washington and away from Russia, a traditional partner, on defense, increasing Indian purchases of U.S. arms exports by 550%. He outright endorsed Trump’s reelection in September, saying “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” (this time, a Trump government) and has benefited from the president’s silence on the human rights crisis in Kashmir.
“Kashmiris have no hope from Trump,” said Ejaz Ayoub, a professional based in Srinagar. “The U.S. has every reason to appease India for geopolitical and economic reasons.”
Yet it’s hard to tell how much Modi can actually secure from the two leaders’ latest encounter.
Despite Modi’s best efforts, Trump has continued to talk about the Kashmir situation with Pakistan, which claims a stake there, and to offer to mediate between the two nations. He’s unlikely to alienate Islamabad because he wants its backing for his attempt to secure a win in neighboring Afghanistan. “As Trump’s political motivation to withdraw from Afghanistan in the 2020 election year assumes the fore, there is an apparent restoration of U.S.-Pakistan ties,” said Kashish Parpiani of the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai.
India and the U.S. remain at loggerheads over trade.
A trade deal that the two sides have been negotiating for three years is in limbo. Trump wants India to open its market to U.S. manufacturers and farmers and to reduce tariffs on industrial products and medical devices. His tariffs on steel and aluminum are hurting New Delhi. He has revoked India’s status under the Generalized System of Preferences, which allowed almost $6 billion worth of Indian items to enter the U.S. duty-free, prompting Modi to hit back with his own tariffs on American goods. And he continues to insist that India treats the U.S. unfairly. Trump has railed against the tariff that India imposes on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, even after Modi reduced it from 100% to 50%, and his team considered a “Section 301 investigation” into India’s tariff barriers, akin to its tough approach to China.
Trump has also worried the Indian public by making it harder to obtain H-1B visas, which allow tens of thousands of Indian professionals to work in the U.S., and by deploying rhetoric that is tied to widely publicized hate crimes against Indians and other South Asians in the U.S. In a 2017 case that drew major attention in India, a Kansas man yelled, “Get out of my country!” before shooting and killing an Indian engineer.
Domestically, the two leaders have deployed similar tactics to similar success. Both see “polarizing the electorate” as a tool, Parpiani said. But the kind of game-changing international boost they’re looking for from each other will likely elude them.
Trump’s Bid For Global Leadership
WASHINGTON ― Trump is claiming responsibility for a “great American comeback” ahead of his fight for reelection. Making the U.S. “highly respected again” is central to that pitch.
Posturing in India is an ideal way for Trump to boost his argument and to underscore that he remains welcome abroad even if domestic rivals have left him “impeached forever.” Unlike in Europe, where he’s unpopular and has major policy disagreements with most leaders, he probably won’t attract mass protests in India or present an awkward contrast with the prime minister. And the lack of a popular outcry against his visit probably won’t be blamed on repression, as it might have been if he were visiting one of the autocratic nations with Trump-friendly leaders, like Saudi Arabia.
Because Trump and Modi use similar rhetoric to appeal to select segments of their societies while presenting others as bogeymen, they don’t risk a public clash.
“There are more questions in the last six months about India’s commitment to democracy, to tolerance, and concerns about Islamophobia in India than we’ve really seen in the history of the U.S.-Indian relationship,” said Bruce Riedel, a longtime CIA official who is now at the Brookings Institution. However, “the last person in the world likely to raise any of these issues is Donald Trump. He’s an Islamophobe himself, he doesn’t practice tolerance for dissidence at home, so these issues are not going to come up in this visit.”
Courting India also helps Trump combat the common Democratic argument that he’s alienated important American partners.
India isn’t a key treaty ally like Germany and others he’s had his differences with, but it is vital to a foreign policy priority shared by Democrats and Republicans: rallying international partners to resist the rise of China. New Delhi’s buy-in is also helpful for American regional priorities like securing a peace deal in Afghanistan and a future settlement with Iran ― goals that Democrats say they could achieve if they take the White House from Trump. Presenting himself as a Modi whisperer lets Trump argue that national security goals hinge on his personal success.
And the president can use the visit to rack up more evidence for his campaign’s chief pitch: that he’s delivered for the U.S. economy.
To claim responsibility for creating jobs, Trump can cite the defense industry purchases to which India has agreed. He’ll be helped by Modi and other powerful Indians who are keen to talk about their country’s investments in the U.S. as proof that the relationship benefits both sides. The two leaders may sign a new limited trade agreement.
By showing his sway in a huge market, Trump will be signaling to Wall Street and corporate America, the beneficiaries of much of his economic policy so far and a potential source of even stronger support given their wariness of an increasingly liberal Democratic Party. As the U.S.-China trade war persists and the Trump administration expands its economic fight with Europe, India is an arena where he and the business community are pushing in the same direction: to reduce barriers rather than build them.
But Trump isn’t guaranteed success in his public relations effort.
Human rights groups, journalists and American lawmakers in both parties have been highlighting India’s growing repression for months, making Modi more controversial in the U.S. and increasing public awareness about his discriminatory policies. He is increasingly seen as just one more in Trump’s string of hardline, polarizing foreign allies ― limiting the political benefit of a Trump-Modi embrace among people outside the president’s base.
Aware of the risks of being seen as tied to only one of the two major U.S. political parties, India has traditionally been wary of presidential visits in election years, said Tanvi Madan, an analyst also at the Brookings Institution.
New Delhi has already weakened longstanding ties to Democrats by snubbing Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), an Indian immigrant and rising star in her party, in December.
Should the trip make U.S.-India ties appear even more partisan, Trump will look less like a global leader than a traveling circus act, performing the same electioneering shtick at home and abroad with similar, limited results.
Political realities will also undercut the president’s economic boasts around the trip. Modi could give Trump some basis to brag that he’s making it easier for Americans to succeed in the Indian economy, but the easing of restrictions probably won’t be substantial.
“Prime Minister Modi and President Trump, for all the comparisons made about their similarities, are quite different in economic philosophy. Prime Minister Modi’s party can be quite protectionist,” Madan said. “Unless we see a real rethink in the Indian government that they need to open up the economy, as they did in the early ’90s … you’re not going to see that necessarily get any better for American companies. I think they are just going to keep trying to get some concessions along the way.”
Notoriously uninterested in facts and policy details that challenge his narrative, Trump just may not care. At the very least, he’ll get the photo ops.