President Donald Trump became the seventh U.S. president to visit India this week, with a two-day visit to Ahmedabad, the hometown of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Each leader praised the other amid the fanfare of the visit, with Trump referring to Modi as “my true friend.” But trade between both countries remains strained, and in New Delhi, protests over a controversial Indian citizenship law continue. What does this week’s Trump-Modi bromance mean?
What went down during the visit?
There was a lot of cheering and photo-taking, but little policy action, with just one announcement of a modest military equipment agreement.
Trump arrived in Ahmedabad on Feb. 24 to freshly repaired and fumigated roads and throngs of supporters. According to a January Pew Research study, Trump enjoys an approval rating of 56% in India, one of the few countries to express confidence in him. About 49% of Americans approved of him in February 2020, according to Gallup.
Trump and Modi set off on a 14-mile roadshow, which featured brand-new walls along the route, built to hide impoverished slums ahead of Trump’s visit. The leaders spoke at a massive rally, attended by over 100,000 people, in Sardar Patel Stadium to the strains of Village People’s ‘Macho Man.’
"India-US relations are no longer just another partnership,” Modi told the crowd. “It is a far greater and closer relationship."
Trump assured the stadium, “America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.” Trump’s speech was littered with outbreaks of applause.
Amid the fanfare and roaring crowds, the leaders announced the closure of a $3.5 billion arms deal that had been in the works for years. India approved the helicopter sale in August 2018, while the U.S. State Department authorized it in April 2019.
What didn’t happen?
A much-anticipated trade deal didn’t come to fruition. The U.S. and India have been engaged in a trade squabble since Trump included Indian products in a series of steel and aluminum tariffs in 2018. Last June, Trump stripped India of its preferential trade status in a program for developing countries, prompting retaliatory tariffs on 28 U.S. products.
"India is probably the highest tariff nation in the world," said Trump on Feb. 25, according to US News.
But a trade deal could still be in the cards. Both leaders recognize the “need for long-term trade stability,” according to a Feb. 26 joint statement released by the White House. “They agreed to promptly conclude the ongoing negotiations, which they hope can become phase one of a comprehensive bilateral trade agreement.”
Trump indicated that there would be a deal in place by the end of 2020, and “if that doesn’t happen, then we will do something else.”
Nearly 600 miles away, deadly protests raged
In December, India passed an amendment to its Citizenship Act that expedites citizenship for religious minorities fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It includes Hindus, Sikhs and more, but excludes Muslims. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party pushed the bill through the Indian legislature with help from allies. The move triggered mass protests, with opponents arguing that it violated India’s secular constitution. Others protested against an anticipated influx of immigrants.
A senior administration official told NBC that Trump would address religious minorities in his public speeches and with Modi in private, but the president offered no strong condemnation.
“I want to leave [the issue] to India and hopefully they will make the right decisions,” Trump told reporters at a press conference Feb. 25. Modi, he said, “was incredible on what he told me: He wants people to have religious freedom.”
The protests have left 27 people dead and another 200 injured, as of Feb. 26, according to AFP. Demonstrators wielded swords, guns and acid in attacks on homes, mosques and schools.
Populistic friends, kept at arm’s length
Despite these flashpoints between the U.S. and India, Trump and Modi have developed an understanding regarding their mutual tendencies toward populism.
But while this emphasis on nationalistic, domestic-focused policy has fostered friendship between the leaders, it’s also tempered that same relationship. U.S. officials are concerned about the “Make in India” initiative’s protectionist tariffs and e-commerce regulations, for example.
“[Modi] is a real friend of mine. And, you know, you always say that in a guarded way,” said Trump of the Indian leader at a business roundtable in New Delhi on Feb. 26. “He’s a friend, but he loves India. And I’m a friend, but I love the USA.”
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