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In India, a Trump-Modi bromance with personal business and electability topping the agenda

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, February 24, 2020.
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, February 24, 2020. © REUTERS/Al Drago

US President Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India may be a matter of pageantry over policy, but it served the domestic agendas of both leaders and, more importantly, the interests of Trump’s family business and Modi’s backers among the Indian diaspora in America.

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Two years ago, when the US president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., arrived in India, newspapers featured full front-page ads of the Trump princeling with all-cap headers screaming, “TRUMP HAS ARRIVED. HAVE YOU?” and “TRUMP IS HERE. ARE YOU INVITED?”

The all-important invitation was for a champagne dinner with the US president’s son, which could be snagged by anyone putting down a $39,000 deposit for a luxury apartment in the latest Trump Tower project located in a suburb of the capital, New Delhi.

India has the most Trump-branded projects outside the United States and the relationship between the American billionaire-president and affluent, aspirational Indians – and Americans of Indian origin – has been a special one.

Weeks before his victory in the November 2016 election, Trump addressed a “Bollywood-style” campaign rally hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition in Edison, New Jersey. Following opening acts featuring dancing stars, the Republican candidate proclaimed his love for the wealthiest immigrant group in the United States. “I am a big fan of Hindu,” said Trump. “Big, big fan.”

Trump’s mix-up of religion and country could not have bothered the 5,000-odd guests at the event. Hindu hardliners have reciprocated Trump’s fandom; their vision of a Hindu rashtra – or Hindu nation – which marginalises India’s Muslims and migrants, dovetails neatly with Trump’s tough stance on Muslim immigration.

Then there are the usual areas of US-India policy overlap, which will be repeated during Trump’s two-day visit.

Relations between the world’s two largest democracies have been historically shaped by a shared alarm over a rising, increasingly assertive China.

A tough position on Islamist terrorism also resonates well in New Delhi and Trump’s Washington DC.

At a massive stadium rally in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on Monday, Trump received huge applause for touting a theme that most Western leaders note on India visits.

“The United States and India are also firmly united in our ironclad resolve to defend our citizens from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism,” said Trump as more than 100,000 people – most sporting white caps emblazoned with “Namaste Trump,” or Welcome Trump – roared their approval.

“Today the ISIS territorial caliphate has been one hundred percent destroyed and the monster known as al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS, is dead,” said Trump referring to the Islamic State (IS) group’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

 

Style over substance

Despite the pomp, grandeur and media coverage, Trump’s first official visit to India has so far seen the absence of substantive deliverables. A much-awaited US-India trade deal was expected to be the centrepiece of the visit, but negotiations have been stuck over tariffs and price controls with Trump’s “American First” drive clashing with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s protectionist “Make in India” mantra.

Defence deals are on the agenda, as expected between weapons producing nations and a major arms buyer such as India. But Russia remains a major supplier, with New Delhi agreeing to buy Moscow's $5.4 billion S-400 missile defence system despite the threat of US sanctions.

In the absence of significant bilateral initiatives, the US president’s latest visit to India has been dismissed as more style than substance with the optics of a Trump-Modi bromance against a backdrop of glitz and kitsch.

 

Domestic political goals

The biggest takeaways of the trip are personal, for both Trump and Modi, with wealth and electability topping the agenda. “The point of this visit is for domestic political reasons for the leaders of both countries,” explained Mira Kamdar, author of “India in the 21st Century” and former member of the New York Times editorial board. “Trump gets to court the Indian-American vote and show he’s loved abroad. Modi shows himself as the best pal of the leader of the US and gets to have the president of the United States endorse him.”

Trump has been focusing on the November 2020 presidential election and the public relations boost in populous, colourful India – unlike visits to the UK, which bring out more protesters than fans – is a welcome change for the Republican incumbent.

The four million-strong Indian community in the United States is not a substantive voting base for Trump. A little over half of them are Hindu and tend to vote left in the US, according to the Pew Research Center. But it is a well-educated and affluent community that also includes disproportionately powerful and loyal supporters of the current US president.

Modi, too, has a lot to gain from an uncritical endorsement from the leader of the free world.

Despite his landslide victory in the 2019 Indian general elections, Modi has faced widespread protests against his administration’s controversial citizenship amendment and registration policies, which critics say target Muslims and contravene the secular democratic principles of the Indian constitution.

On Monday, as Trump and his family were visiting the Taj Mahal (described by UNESCO as the “jewel of Muslim art in India”) clashes broke out in New Delhi, when Modi supporters chanting Hindu religious slogans faced off with protesters opposing the government's citizenship and registration policies.

Meanwhile Modi’s image as the Indian economy's best hope has suffered a battering with the country experiencing its slowest growth in a decade amid a shadow banking crisis, weak investment and a slump in spending.

‘Trump the statesman and Trump the salesman’

That downturn has hit the Trump Organization’s five projects in India, with completed Trump Towers standing mostly vacant in some cities while developers scramble for buyers on other properties still under construction.

Conflicts of interest with his business dealings have dogged the US president since he took office and nowhere, according to the US news site Politico, “are the lines more blurred between Trump the statesman and Trump the salesman than in India.”

Ignoring calls to fully separate from his company when he was elected president, Trump has instead placed his holdings in a trust designed to maintain assets for his benefit. But ethics experts have called the move meaningless since Trump can access the trust funds and can withdraw money at any point without the public’s knowledge.

While Trump the president has been wooing the leader of the world’s largest democracy, his company has been relentlessly promoting its projects in the Indian market. His family has supported his Indian business interests since he got into the White House, with champagne dinners and meetings with the US president’s children offered as incentives to potential clients.

They in turn have been helped by political associates and major funders of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In a detailed report in The New Republic magazine, investigative journalist Anjali Kamat examined the Trump Organization’s partner in Mumbai -- India’s commercial capital -- for his business and political connections. The Lodha Group, one of India’s largest real-estate developers, was founded by Mangal Prabhat Lodha, president of the BJP’s Mumbai division and member of the legislative assembly of Maharashtra, the country’s second largest state of which Mumbai is the capital.

Like Trump, Lodha is a businessman-politician, but unlike the US president, the Indian politician does not face the same level of scrutiny in the opaque, corruption-ridden Indian real estate sector.

The cliques of businessmen backing Modi and Trump are often a tangle of mutually enriching circuits that investigators are still unraveling.

The latest issue of the Indian magazine, The Caravan, for instance, featured an investigative report of how a major Modi backer, Mukesh Ambani, a leading Indian businessman and chairman of Reliance Industries Limited, managed to import oil from Venezuela despite US sanctions by hiring an influential lobbyist, Brian Ballard, known to be a close aide and old friend of the US president.

‘Diaspora diplomacy’ on display

Apart from the economic benefits of individuals related or close to the two leaders, Trump’s lavish reception in India is a display of the power of what the BJP calls “diaspora diplomacy”.

For decades, the emigration of educated Indians to the United States was viewed as a “brain drain” by India and a loss for its development ambitions. That view has changed under Modi, particularly after the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots, when Modi was banned from travelling to the US and UK for his role in overseeing the violence.

With the help of the Indian diaspora, working through organisations linked to a network of Hindu extremist groups, the visa was overturned when Modi became prime minister in 2014.

The community has since acted as what Vijay Chauthaiwale, head of the BJP’s foreign affairs cell, called “our biggest soft power,” in an interview with The Intercept.

The diaspora diplomacy agenda includes lobbying US Congress, contributing to political campaigns, defending the Modi administration’s increasingly divisive authoritarian agenda and whitewashing its human rights abuses, according to The Intercept.

For the party’s overseas supporters, Trump’s gala visit to India also serves as a form of payment for their loyalty and hard work, according to some experts. “This could be also seen as a sort of payoff for the financial and diplomatic support Modi and the BJP has got from the diaspora,” said Kamdar. “It reinforces for their supporters the view that people can be patriotic Americans and support Modi.”

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