Signs and substance: On outcome of Trump visit

PM Modi must leverage his rapport with President Trump to clinch the trade deal

February 27, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 01:07 am IST

President Donald Trump’s India visit can easily be cleaved into two separate parts: the symbolism of the joint rally with Prime Minister Narendra Modi , along with their obvious personal rapport, and the actual bilateral outcomes of their Delhi meeting. On the former, it is clear that the public address at Ahmedabad’s Sardar Patel Stadium reflected an unprecedented relationship between the leaders of India and the United States, with each expressing admiration of the work they had done in their own countries. Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Modi as a “true friend”, and a “tremendously successful leader”, who he credited with India’s progress. A day later he described Mr. Modi as “a very religious man… a very calm man, but a very, very strong person”. Mr. Modi in turn complimented Mr. Trump for his leadership, and thanked Mr. Trump’s family for what he described as a historic visit that will open a new phase. The invitation to Mr. Trump was in itself a political endorsement, given that it came in an American election year, months after Mr. Modi referred to the slogan “ Abki Baar Trump Sarkar ” at his Houston rally. Mr. Modi would have been particularly pleased on three counts: with Mr. Trump’s refusal to speak about restrictions in Kashmir , about the arson over the CAA that darkened Delhi’s skies even as the two leaders met, and Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Modi’s belief in “religious freedom”. This was some relief given earlier briefings by U.S. officials that these would be raised.

In contrast, the visit’s concrete outcomes were not as dramatic or historical as the Trump-Modi rally images were. Although the External Affairs Ministry had said at least five MoUs would be ready for signing, the three made ready were two on health care, and one Letter of Cooperation on LNG pipeline infrastructure. There were a few major deals signed around the visit as well, and at least two that had been expected could not be completed — the conversion of an MoU for Petronet to invest in American gas company Tellurian into an agreement, as well as a commercial agreement for Westinghouse to build six nuclear reactors in Andhra Pradesh. The agreement signed for defence purchases worth $3-billion , including American helicopters, has led to both sides signalling more cooperation in defence, military exercises and technology sharing. And while the two leaders shared strong language in references aimed at China’s hegemony in the South China Sea as well as the Belt and Road Initiative, they did not broach the next steps in the Indo-Pacific partnership including possible militarisation as well as joint funding to counter the challenge from Chinese loans in the region. The two governments must now strive to complete the unfinished agreements and set the course for their newly designated ‘Comprehensive Strategic Global Partnership’. More immediately, with the political backing of both leaders, negotiators must move towards the much anticipated yet elusive trade deal.

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