Trade deal or not, India matters to the US

Kushner is accompanying his father-in-law mainly to further nuclear cooperation between India and the US.

By Rahul Singh

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Published: Sun 23 Feb 2020, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 23 Feb 2020, 9:30 PM

Even as the red carpet is being rolled out for the India visit of US President Donald Trump, a new controversy has erupted. The President's wife, Melanie, is scheduled to spend an hour at a Delhi government-run school on the second day of the visit. The school has a 'happiness' curriculum class, one of the flagship programmes of the Delhi government, to help children relieve stress, meditate and discuss what is troubling them. Evidently, the US First Lady was interested in finding out more about the programme.
As it happens, Delhi is ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, which recently thumped its main rival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in an election, winning 63 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly. This defeat has clearly not gone down well with Modi. His party swept the polls in last year's general election, largely because of his huge popularity and oratorical skills. He is not a person who takes an electoral loss so soon after that resounding victory in his stride. He is used to winning, not losing. He won twice in the Gujarat election, leading to two successive terms as the state chief minister, followed by two general election wins, resulting in his second term as prime minister of India. Furthermore, it is no secret that he wants to go down in history as India's greatest prime minister, even greater than the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid the foundations of Indian democracy and promoted secularism and tolerance. Modi's - and the BJP's - disdain for Nehru repeatedly surfaces.
For much the same reasons, Modi and his party have looked down contemptuously on the AAP and its leader, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, a politician with much the same values and appeal as Nehru. Kejriwal is rapidly emerging as a serious rival to Modi, now that Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, is fading away, unable to counter Modi's undoubted charisma and pulling power.
All government schools in Delhi are administered by the AAP, and their earlier abysmal standards have vastly improved under AAP's administration. For Melanie Trump to go to one of those schools was a feather in the cap of AAP and Kejriwal. But to have Kejriwal take the First Lady around the school, with not only the Indian media but international media as well covering the occasion, was intolerable to Modi. He is a man who enjoys being in the limelight and resents anybody who threatens to take it away from him.
So, what has he and his government done? Removed Kejriwal and his Deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia, who is also Delhi's Education Minister, from those invited to the function! Theoretically, US officials removed them but the instigation must have been from the Indian government, Modi in particular. That is incredibly petty and churlish behaviour. As it is, the spotlight on the first day of Donald Trump's visit will be entirely on Modi, since he has structured the US President's two-day trip, so that the first day is spent in Ahmedabad, the capital of Modi's home state of Gujarat.
There, according to Trump himself, 'seven million' Indians will line the 22-km route from the airport to the newly constructed Motera stadium (the biggest cricket stadium in the world, that can hold over 100,000 people). That seven million figure is surely exaggerated, as the population of Ahmedabad is only a little over five million! Anyway, the gathering will be the largest, by far, ever attended by Trump, wonderful pageantry with great photo opportunities. It will be replicating the 'Howdy Modi' extravaganza that took place in a football stadium in Houston, Texas, during Modi's last visit to the US. Trump's intention is on getting the support of the Indian diaspora in the US, an increasingly influential lobby, for his re-election in November. Modi sees the visit as strengthening Indo-US ties, and, hopefully paving the way for more favourable export terms for Indian goods. However, cold water has already been thrown by Trump on any major trade deal taking place between India and the US during his two-day visit.
"We can have a trade deal with India," the American President has been quoted as saying, "but I am saving the big trade deal for later on."
In other words, don't expect anything on this trip. Earlier, he had accused India for being the world's 'tariff king', meaning that India had too many tariff barriers for American goods. Indeed, the US trade deficit with India in 2018 was a $25 billion, which Trump seems determined to reduce.
"We are not treated very well by India," the US President has said, "but I happen to like Prime Minister Narendra Modi a lot."
That neatly sums up Trump's view of the Indian prime minister and the thrust of the likely US economic policy towards India in the foreseeable future. However, an intriguing Indian news report says that Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, will also be accompanying him on board Air Force 1. He is seeking to push for a massive $40-billion deal for setting up nuclear plants in India. The way had been cleared earlier by the previous administration of prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh when he and then US president George Bush had signed in 2009 a momentous and far-reaching deal that paved the way for India's entry into the civil nuclear mainstream. In return for that agreement, India had promised that the American company, Westinghouse, could build six nuclear plants in India. Kushner is accompanying his father-in-law mainly to further nuclear cooperation between India and the US.
A major trade deal or not, Modi and Trump clearly like and admire each other. Their styles of governing are also similar. A high visibility visit, the first the American president has made to India, is therefore virtually guaranteed, with plenty of hoopla accompanying it. A lot of Indians in India and abroad will be glued to their TV sets today and tomorrow.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times

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