India’s contradictions on show amid Trump visit
26 Feb 2020|

The contradictions afflicting India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been in full display over the past few days. US President Donald Trump’s 36-hour visit became an occasion for the display of bonhomie between him and Modi. This was accompanied by an extravagant show of welcome for the visiting dignitary and visits to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and to the Taj Mahal, the Mughal monument that Indian author Rabindranath Tagore described as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time’.

The visit also demonstrated the increasing importance of India in America’s geostrategic calculations. Trump said more than once that the most sophisticated American weapon systems (‘the best in the world’, according to him) were open for purchase by India. A US$3 billion deal for the supply of AH-64 Apache and MH-60R Romeo helicopters and other defence equipment to India was finalised during the visit. The US is now the second largest supplier of arms to India after Russia, with which New Delhi has had a longstanding arms-supply relationship.

However, critics have noted that unlike most purchases from Russia, weapon systems sold by the US don’t include technology transfer and therefore don’t enhance indigenous capabilities in the long run. They have also pointed out that the American interest in bolstering India’s defence capability has more to do with using India to balance and contain the growth of China’s power in the Indo-Pacific and preserve American supremacy in the region than with helping India to emerge as an autonomous power centre. In the long run, they argue, this will be deleterious for Indian interests and unnecessarily force it into an antagonistic relationship with a powerful neighbour with which it shares a border and a flourishing trade relationship. China is the leading exporter of goods to India, while the US is the largest importer of Indian goods.

Critics have also pointed out that Trump was ambivalent in his comments about India’s archrival Pakistan. Trump, to the consternation of the Indian establishment, publicly stated that his administration has very good relations with Pakistan, which he categorised as a valuable friend. It was a clear signal that the US considers Pakistan an irreplaceable asset in its attempt to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. That will be impossible without an agreement with the Taliban, which is seen as Pakistan’s protégé. With such an agreement around the corner, Islamabad is seen as indispensable to the process.

The main disappointment for the Indians was that the visit failed to produce a much-awaited trade agreement. The deal has been held up because of India’s refusal to open its economy to the import of American goods and services to the extent demanded by Washington and thus reduce the trade imbalance between the two countries. Trump nevertheless emphasised in his public pronouncements that a landmark trade agreement that satisfied both sides would materialise by the end of the year.

As the Indian electronic media was breathlessly covering Trump’s visit and his extraordinary reception in the country, many TV channels had to split their screens to simultaneously cover what almost seemed a tale of two cities, the confrontation and blood-letting between protestors for and against the citizenship amendment act (CAA) in seven districts in north-eastern Delhi, a few kilometres from where the Trump–Modi discussions were taking place.

The rioting started as a result of an inflammatory public demand by a local leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Kapil Mishra, that the police remove anti-CAA protestors engaged in sit-ins forthwith or else his supporters would do the job. The clashes have so far left more than a dozen people dead, leading to demands that the army be called in to restore order. The confrontation has now taken on a distinctly communal colour in pitting Hindus against Muslims and has the very real potential to spread to other parts of the country.

The passage of the CAA by the Indian parliament has since mid-December led to protests in various parts of the country. Its opponents, both Hindus and Muslims, argue that it discriminates against Muslims by setting up a fast track to citizenship for people of all faiths other than Islam who have migrated, mostly illegally, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to India. The constitutionality of the act has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which is still to pronounce judgement in the case.

The protestors taking part in sit-ins, who are primarily Muslim women, are demanding that the CAA be repealed as it is linked with the proposed national register of citizens. They feel the register could be used to deny Indian citizenship to large numbers of Muslims who may then face expulsion or incarceration as illegal aliens. The CAA, along with the proposed register, has become a major, if not the most, divisive issue in India.

Trump, when asked at his press conference about the issue, declared, ‘I don’t want to discuss that. I want to leave that to India and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people.’ He did praise India’s religious diversity, but shied away from the subject of religious freedom in the country, saying that Modi told him he wants people to have religious freedom and has worked ‘really hard’ to achieve it. Trump said he’d heard about the individual attacks but didn’t discuss it with Modi.

The outbreak of communal violence in the national capital during Trump’s visit has not had any impact on the outcome of the Indian–American negotiations on strategic and economic issues. However, it is likely to have embarrassed the Indian government by exposing societal fissures that it would have rather kept under wraps so that the media could concentrate only on the grandiose reception the president received and the effusiveness of his praise for the prime minister.