Namaste Trump, Howdy Modi: Why Trump's visit to India is more theatre than substance

Namaste Trump, Howdy Modi: Why Trump's visit to India is more theatre than substance

In-depth: Trump's visit to India is billed as historic, but it's likely more about optics and theatre for domestic consumption rather than grand strategy, writes Tahir Hussain Sofi.
6 min read
23 February, 2020
Preparations are underway for Trump's visit to India (Getty)
Trump’s stopover in India this week is probably more about optics and political expedience, than about strategy, albeit the two sides stand to advance some of their respective administrations’ geopolitical concerns.

For the two right-wing leaders who share many of their policy instincts, from the way they approach questions like immigration to the way they emphasize religious identity in politics, the visit seems to be a campaign of domestic point-scoring.

For Trump, with the Indian American community an important vote bank ahead of what appears to be a tough US presidential election, the visit arguably constitutes a sort of canvassing for votes and for the endorsement of right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in September 2019, Modi addressed a massive gathering at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ show in Houston, in an impressive show of force.

For Modi, the visit is a useful distraction from domestic uproar over a stalling economy and a number of controversial policies that many see as an assault on India’s secular character.

It follows that issues like the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), both of which target Muslims, as well as the crisis in Kashmir and the treatment of non-governmental organisations in India are unlikely to come up in any meaningful way in their meetings, despite US statements promising they will indeed be raised.

‘Namaste Trump’

Instead, Modi has promised Trump a staggering rally to cheer for him, and Trump seems to have promised Modi a politically valuable deal on trade and defence. During Trump’s two-day visit that begins Monday, he is expected to attend an event at the Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad dubbed ‘Namaste Trump’, as a thank you for ‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston.

Millions of dollars have been controversially spent on a beautification drive in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad ahead of the rally, including painting murals, installing hundreds of vases and building a wall to hide the state’s slums from the high-level visitor.

"We're happy to witness a gradual change. It's a blessing in disguise to witness how things could be done at such a rapid pace,” said Mehvish, a local studying an M.A. in Political Science.

The roads on which Trump’s motorcade have been even repaved, with a wall built around the Dev Saran Slum—to hide the entire view from Trump, who is bound to take this particular route alongside Modi, who began his political career as Gujarat’s chief minister.

Given India’s stalling economy, opposition parties have been in uproar over the costs borne by the taxpayer for the rally.

According to opposition parties, the Gujarat government has shelled out a whopping $14 million on advertising alone, which includes billboards – one of which reads "the world's oldest democracy meets the world's largest democracy".

Trump is also set to address massive gathering at what is the world’s largest cricket stadium – Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad’s Motera district. The newly constructed stadium, a massive vanity project for Modi, has cost hundreds of millions of dollars with a seating capacity of 110,000.

To many observers, the exaggerated red-carpet reception for Trump is in part meant to distract from the protests that broke out against the CAA and NRC projects launched by Modi, which many believe unfairly target Muslim migrants as well as Indian Muslims and threaten India’s secular legacy in the direction of building a Hindu ethno-state. Anti-CAA protests have attracted tens of thousands across India, triggering an unprecedented political crisis for Modi’s party, which suffered a huge electoral setback in New Delhi earlier this month.

Wooing India away from Iran

During Trump’s visit, he will likely be keen to convince India to cut commercial ties with Iran and join his maximum pressure policy, with inducements that include a mega trade deal.

The Trump administration wants India to stop importing oil from Iran, with promises to expand the current trade between the two nations, worth $17.3 billion by last year’s estimates.

The US is also eyeing India to become part of its efforts to encircle China and contain the Belt and Road Initiative, although so far Beijing remains a key economic partner for New Delhi.

Nevertheless, the Trump-Modi friendship has already scored some economic and strategic gains, including by deepening military cooperation in a record period of time, with joint military exercises held in November.

Right now, India is looking to boost its navy by signing a $2.6 billion deal for military choppers. Reports suggest India could buy 24 MH-60Rs (Seahawk) choppers from the US.

What about Kashmir?

While the Trump administration said the CAA and NRC would be tackled in the talks with Modi, these two issues have not figured highly on the agenda for the White House, unlike in Congress, which is coming under pressure from Muslim groups to denounce India’s move. But the same cannot be said about the other issue relevant to Muslim Indians and Pakistanis, that of Kashmir.

Since July 2019, Trump has offered mediation between India and Pakistan to defuse the crisis in the Indian side of disputed Kashmir after New Delhi abolished its quasi-autonomous status, but India has rejected the offer, saying Kashmir is an internal matter. Now, it is interesting to see whether Trump will shock Modi by bringing up the Kashmir issue again – In Davos recently, just before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, Trump brought up the Kashmir issue, restating his offer.

Kashmir has been on edge since it has been robbed off from its special status on August 5. The move, which opens the way to demographic alterations that disfavor Muslims in the Muslim-majority former state, was followed by a clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir complete with a communication blockade, the deployment of Indian army forces, and the detention of senior local officials.

Citizens there alleged atrocities have been committed by government forces, and much of the internet infrastructure there remains inaccessible.

"Going by the previous track record, the US might bring up Kashmir, but India so far has been brisk in putting down their mediation offer. However, Kashmir which is an international issue has been internationalised again at this moment in history and that cannot go away," said Athar Zia, who teaches anthropology and gender studies at University of Northern Colorado.

"We will have to wait and watch to see what the outcome (of Trump’s visit) is pertaining to Kashmir," said Congress leader Salman Nizami.

"It’s important (visit) for Trump, as he is eyeing for Indian-American voters. And, it could turn decisive for him as he is coming to India for his election campaign. But it’s a political stunt, and Trump himself is a dubious character".

Tahir Hussain Sofi is a freelance journalist based between Kashmir and New Delhi.