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Make America Great Again or Make In India: Agendas clash on Modi’s US visit

PIB, AFP | Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets members of the Indian community in the US on June 25, 2017.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with US President Donald Trump Monday, their similarities will pose the biggest challenge as both leaders push competing nationalist agendas.


The contrasts could not be starker. On his first trip to the US as Indian prime minister, Modi was given a rock star treatment at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden, where 19,000 banner-waving fans chanted his name at what was called a “Super Modi” show. Barely a year later, when the Indian leader met then-US President Barack Obama in January 2015, the two men established a personal rapport that was quickly dubbed a “bromance” by the media.

The leaders of the world’s two largest democracies are meeting again Monday, but this time, there will be no rock star reception for Modi. The chances of another bromance – or genuine bonhomie – between Modi and Trump are slim.

Indian officials have been careful to downplay expectations surrounding Modi’s first meeting with Trump, describing it as a “no frills” visit, with closed-door meetings and private dinners instead of the usual pomp and splendour.

It should not have been this way. Both Trump and Modi are populist, right-wing leaders riding nationalist waves while issuing dire warnings about militant Islamism and fighting terrorism. Their respective right-wing bases share the same themes and dread the same threats. They are also avid tweeters: Trump has over 32 million followers while Modi has 31 million, making them the first- and second-most followed world leaders respectively.

But over the past few months, serious differences have emerged between the US and Indian leaders.

“Two issues: H1B visas and climate change will dominate the meeting between these two leaders, and they couldn’t possibly hold more diametrically opposing views on both,” explained FRANCE 24’s Mandakini Gahlot, reporting from New Delhi, India.

US visas at stake

H-1B, or US work visas, have become a thorny issue between the two countries since Trump took office early this year. Indians are the top beneficiaries of the skilled workers’ category, accounting for around 70 percent of the visas awarded annually.

But Trump has repeatedly blasted US tech companies for exploiting the programme to replace Americans with cheaper foreign workers.

The US president has ordered a review of the programme, which threatens giant Indian tech companies such as Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys Ltd, which carry out a wide range of services particularly for Silicon Valley-based companies.

The problem between Trump and Modi is not so much their differences of opinion, but their shared visions. Their respective nationalist war-cries sound strikingly similar, making an economic protectionist showdown almost inevitable.

While Trump seeks to “Make America Great Again”, by protecting US jobs, Modi’s “Make In India” motto is aimed at encouraging foreign companies to manufacture their products in India.

On Sunday, Modi met with a delegation of top business leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who described it as a “terrific meeting” in a tweet.

Building bridges on security

Climate change has been another contentious issue since Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord earlier this month.

“President Trump called out India while announcing his decision to pull out of that climate accord, slamming the country for apparently demanding billions in foreign aid for signing the agreement. India of course said there was absolutely no reality in his claim,” Gahlot explained.

Modi has vowed to stick with the 2015 agreement signed by 195 countries. During a recent meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Indian leader said he would “continue working … above and beyond the Paris accord.”

But while work visas and climate change may divide Modi and Trump, counter-terrorism remains one issue on which they share common ground, and their respective delegations have been careful to put it high on Monday’s agenda.

At Sunday’s invitation-only meeting with business leaders at the Ritz Carlton in Virginia, Modi noted, "When India talked of terrorism 20 years back, many in the world said it was a law and order problem and didn't understand it. Now terrorists have explained terrorism to them so we don't have to."

It’s a discourse guaranteed to strike a chord with Trump as he holds his first-ever meeting with Modi later Monday.

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