“Howdy Modi” was returned with “Namasté Trump” in equal pomp and splendor. No stone was left unturned in welcoming Trump to India: he got to inaugurate the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, in Modi’s home state, and the city got a new wall (one that would make Trump proud) to keep the slums and squalor out of view.
With so much happening on the Trump visit, you can hardly blame the media for taking their eyes off what was happening in the capital, right under Modi’s nose. After all, Trump had boasted even before leaving Washington DC that Modi had promised him a crowd of 10 million in India. Leaving out a few zeros, there were over a 100,000 people at the Motera stadium waiting to receive Trump and cheer him on.
While Modi was laying the red carpet for the US President, there was a communal riot raging on the streets of Delhi, that was almost erased off most of the media. Even the country’s largest circulating daily, The Times of India, reported the Delhi riots first in their Goa edition on Tuesday, February 25th, when the violence began on Sunday, February 23rd, even before Trump’s arrival. In the following days, it seemed to appear more like a deliberate pogrom initiated by leaders and supporters of the ruling party, as this report from The Guardian suggests. Once again, the police were watching from the sidelines. And once again, no action has been taken against the politicians who incited the violence.
There was speculation in the media whether Trump might raise the CAA issue with our Prime Minister, but I doubted it. It was quite apparent that this visit was a closely choreographed event, planned months in advance, with all the talking points vetted and ready. Trump was not going to do anything to ruffle feathers in Delhi and, with his by now well-known Islamophobia, perhaps even silently approved of the Modi-Shah decision.
The two leaders have never needed each other more. And what a public display they make of it. Putting on grand spectacles for each other that would embarrass even a Roman emperor. This visit was clearly a PR opportunity and it was all about managing the optics. It would be too much to expect either of these leaders to realise the deep irony that while they visited Gandhi’s home at Sabarmati Ashram, communal violence, arson and murder were raging in India’s capital between Hindus and Muslims.
Thanks to the two leaders’ policies at home and overseas, never has their international approval rating been lower. Trump, for dragging his own country, China and the rest of the world into a protracted trade war, for his anti-immigration and anti-climate change policies, his divisive and toxic politics back home, and his near-impeachment (a sham of a trial, in the first place). Modi, for his disastrous economic policies, his religious nationalist agenda which threatens to tear this nation apart, his disregard for India’s constitution and the country’s democratic institutions.
What else can they possibly do when the rest of the world regards them with such disapproval, except to put on great shows for each other? And, of course, Trump is too smart to go back empty-handed, so he walks away with a US $ 3 billion defence deal. Just like that. We know it is like all Western governments to not want to talk or engage unless there is a defence deal on the table. How else can they keep their military-industrial complexes going, especially when everything else in the economy is trending down?
And the way my country, India, is headed I am not surprised that we can only find such strongmen leaders to engage with. Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil was chief guest at our Republic Day celebration this year, and now Trump. Who knows, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Victor Orban of Hungary might be next on the invitation list, except that Erdogan has made some noises about our policies in Kashmir, which we have issued strong reactions to, and so he is persona non grata right now.
The media has also been full of talk of how much the India-US partnership and engagement has progressed, which I am hard-pressed to see. Yes, trade between the two countries has increased manifold to approximately US $ 150 billion, but that doesn’t mean we have a great trade relationship with the US. And it is certainly not one of equals. Trump is too obsessed with the trade deficit that he has even with a small country like India, to let us breathe easy. And he thinks that our tariffs (especially on Harley Davidson motorcycles!) is too high, when Modi already reduced them by 50%, so we can expect more bullying and arm-twisting. Besides, trade wasn’t even up for discussion this time, so it will have to wait until Trump gets re-elected or for a new administration. India needs to be cautious and firm, when dealing with a regime that is transactional, inconsistent and incoherent.
The US has dragged us into the Indo-Pacific Strategic Partnership, in order to contain China and let us be clear-eyed about what our role is. We are no more than a pawn in the chess game; we are no counter-weight to China, economically, politically and militarily (quite in contrast with what this Pew Research Survey done in India tells us). That is why the US also supports our government’s decision to stay out of OBOR (China’s One Belt, One Road initiative), which I believe is detrimental to our long-term strategic interests in the region.
Much is being made of India junking Nehru’s Non-Aligned movement and policies (hardly surprising, considering Modi’s vilification of Nehru at every opportunity he gets), but let us be clear that as we tack firmly to the US side, we are giving up our autonomy and ability to make decisions independent of what the US thinks on many issues. Most importantly, we need to build and strengthen our sphere of influence in the South and Central Asian region which we have clearly given up on, in favour of clutching to the US’s apron strings.
And when it comes to Modi’s pet subject, terrorism, which he raises at every international forum, let us be aware that the US has been historically more aligned with Pakistan’s ostensible efforts at trying to contain terrorism, a hangover from the Cold War era. The US is also engaged with the new politics that is likely to emerge in Afghanistan now, where they are in talks with the largest terrorist group in the region, the Taliban. A monstrosity that was an American creation to begin with, when they were engaged in ousting the Soviets from the country in the late 1980s.
Not to put too fine a point on it then, the US doesn’t have a great track record, when it comes to policing Asia and the Middle East. If anything, the Middle East has become a cauldron of war, famine, poverty, terrorism and disease and it is due, in no small part to the role the US has played in the region. The latest Middle East Peace Plan presented by Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a joke, and a cruel one. It makes a mockery of the Arab’s and Palestinian’s long-standing demand for a two-state solution, as well as of all the decades that have been spent negotiating peace in the region. It is a gift to Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting the third round of inconclusive elections this month and is also fighting to stay alive in politics since he has been indicted on several corruption charges.
What about India’s side of the equation? In my opinion, nothing should engage the Indian leadership’s mind more right now, than the economy. The more our economy weakens, the less able we are to attract long-term foreign investment, generate employment, secure our future, and engage with world leaders to build our sphere of influence on the international stage. The latter should all be an outcome of better economic development and growth.
However, that is not what we are witnessing. To the contrary, this government has made some disastrous decisions, such as demonetization, for which the country is still paying a heavy price many years later. They do not seem to be able to revive growth either, since they have diagnosed it as a supply-side problem which it is clearly not. To top it all, we have even worse decisions such as revoking Article 370 in Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Bill which is unconstitutional (though we are still waiting for the Supreme Court to say so), and the National Register of Citizens, all of which are only working to destroy the social fabric of this country and its much-cherished diversity and must be withdrawn.
In such a scenario, where else can Modi turn, except to the US? Where he has a like-minded kindred spirit in Trump, who is equally full of bluster, braggadocio and jingoistic nationalism. They are both leaders who love attention and spectacle, court the wealthy and spread hatred with their conspiracy theories. I worry, lest they become so dependent on each other that India starts to resemble Iran under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a leader who had become so beholden to the US that he virtually mortgaged his country’s future away.
We all know how that ended, and let us hope that India learns how to engage with the US, as with all other countries; as equal partners who respect each other’s sovereignty and independence as well as understand each other’s obligations and pressures. For now, with charred and burnt embers of an orgy of violence left in the wake of a great party (though the two had nothing to do with each other), this does not seem a very promising future.