India is no stranger to ‘tamasha,” but even by Indian standards, the ‘Trump Tamasha’ is unsurpassed in its sheer scale, dazzle and extravagance. When hyperbole is the reigning currency, anything and everything is possible! Donald J. Trump discovered the limitless possibilities of India and its leader, his much-loved friend Narendra Modi, anew as he began his India journey to an uproarious welcome and an exuberantly cheerful crowd cheering him at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad.
Modi had promised Trump millions of welcoming Indians, and he lived up to his promise (let’s not quibble on the exact head-count) as the flamboyant American leader was greeted with the largest-ever public reception in any foreign country, inspiring him to sing a soaring rhapsody of India and a spirited serenade of its charismatic leader. In his nearly half an hour speech, two themes recurred as a leitmotif: his ardent love for India and Modi. Speaking at a packed Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad on February 24, the maverick American leader sounded genuine and was totally unabashed in his admiration of India and the Indian prime minister.
America loves & respects India
It’s only such deep love that can drive the man who is averse to travel to fly around 8000 miles with his immediate family and his senior Cabinet ministers for a 36-hour sojourn in India. India may not be exactly his favourite place on the earth, but Trump instinctively understands the importance of India and why he needs to continue investing diplomatic capital in deepening the mutually enriching and empowering India-US partnership and friendship. And his appreciation of myriad strengths of India is underpinned by his personal friendship and chemistry with Modi, as his Motera stadium speech underlined. “The First Lady and I have just traveled 8,000 miles around the globe to deliver a message to every citizen across this nation: America loves India. America respects India. And America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people,” said Trump.
The Modi Connect
Trump’s admiration for Modi was also reflected in a string of bantering remarks and tweets in trademark Trump style ahead of his visit to India. “We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Modi a lot,” Mr Trump said famously in a much-publicised tweet that indicated that he will not allow trade differences to come in the way of nurturing and elevating relations with India or his friendship with PM Modi.
For a man as temperamental and mercurial, susceptible to strong likes and dislikes, openly voicing admiration for Modi, particularly at a time when he is under attack from the liberal-left establishment and critics in US and India, is an expression of strong confidence in the much-misunderstood Indian leader. There is also a sense of empathy and identification in so far as Trump senses that like him, Modi, too, is attacked ferociously by his compulsive baiters and loved in equal measure by his supporters and fans. There may be an element of theatricality in their publicly staged shows of banter and bonhomie, but there is also a genuine personal connect between Modi and Trump.
I was among a select group of journalists in New York a few months ago in September 2019 who saw up-close the Trump-Modi show of mutual admiration and affection. To my question about what he thought of his personal chemistry with PM Modi and what this meant for the future of India-US relations, Trump literally burst into a spontaneous rhapsody.
“Well, my personal chemistry is as good as it can get. I have great respect. I have great admiration. And I really like him — that’s another thing. And he’s a great gentleman and a great leader,” a beaming Trump said. Going beyond the usual black-slapping, Trump called Modi the father of India and credited him for bringing the country together and raising its profile. “And I remember India before. Now, not intimately, but I remember India before, and it was very torn. There was a lot of dissension, a lot of fighting. And he brought it all together, like a father would bring it together. Maybe he’s the father of India.”
Why Trump Loves Modi
Such rich praise for a foreign leader is very rare. Why does Trump, the famously transactional leader, loves Modi so much?
First and foremost, Trump acknowledges and appreciates that Modi is the most powerful leader India has had in many years, and hence Modi offers an unprecedented opportunity to advance American interests and take the India-US relations to new heights.
In other words, it’s been clear to Trump that armed with an unassailable parliamentary majority, Modi can walk the talk and deliver, especially in areas which matter to America like defence and energy. In short, Modi is a reliable customer and a trusted interlocutor for Trump.
Secondly, Trump sees in Modi a like-minded nationalist who, like his much-vaunted mission of Make America Great Again, wants to make India great again by investing heavily in infrastructure, technology and innovation, which happen to be areas of proven American prowess. In other words, the shrewd businessman that he is, lauded for his legendary Art of the Deal, Trump sees in Modi’s New India project billions of dollars in business for American companies. The dramatic surge in US exports of defence equipment and oil in the last few years can be traced to Trump’s smart economic diplomacy in which his personal equations with PM Modi played a pivotal role. And this will once again be in the spotlight as India and the US companies sign defence deals worth $3 billion, as Trump announced at the Ahmedabad cricket stadium with an eye on his domestic constituency back home.
Trump has another important reason to admire and love Modi as Modi’s strongman image and nationalism also translates into a more assertive and risk-taking diplomacy vis-à-vis China that coheres with Trump’s China containment policy. In Trump’s strategic worldview, India, the world’s most populous democracy and its 5th largest economy, equipped with nuclear arsenal and a sophisticated Navy can alone serve as a reliable counterweight to what he sees as an abrasive and expansive China. This explains a meeting of minds between Trump and Modi on shaping an inclusive Indo-Pacific, pursuing alternative paradigms of sustainable and transparent infrastructure to counter China-led BRI and keeping pressure on China through plurilateral mechanisms like trilateral and quadrilateral dialogues among democracies.
In his speech at Ahmedabad, Trump extolled Indian democracy and obliquely contrasted it with China. “India’s rise… is all the more inspiring because you have done it as a democratic country, you have done it as a peaceful country, you have done it as a tolerant country and you have done it as a great and free country,” Mr Trump said. “There is all the difference in the world between a nation that seeks its power through coercion, intimidation and aggression and a nation that rises by setting its people free and unleashing them to chase their dreams and that is India,” he said.
Clearly, big-picture calculations frame Trump’s love for Modi and India, but in the near term, he has some sharp electoral calculations as well as he sincerely believes that the Modi magic with the Indian community which he saw at the Howdy Modi rally in Texas can help swing chunks of votes of the Indian-Americans in the November 2020 elections.
If Trump has many potent reasons to love Modi, so does the latter. Modi needs America for finance, technology, innovation and, above all, support for India’s rise. Modi should be profusely happy and grateful for Trump’s speech in which he repeatedly praised him and held him up as an exemplar leader destined to transform India.
Making India & America Great Again
Yes, he gently nudged and reminded PM Modi about India’s reputation as a land of many religions and faiths, but by and large, Trump’s speech was a ringing endorsement from the most powerful man on earth. This unambiguous hosanna from the American president will be specially treasured by Modi as rival politicians and critics relentlessly pillory him as anti-Muslim and “divider-in-chief.” But more importantly, for Modi, going beyond tamasha and pageantry, the unstinted support of America and Trump hold the key to his project of building a New India, an economically powerful country with its own unique narrative on what the world order should look like and how it should be run. Can Indian and American dreams intertwine and align the promises of Making India and America Great Again? Only time will tell, but for now, the talks between Modi and Trump in New Delhi on February 25 will hold vital clues and show the way forward.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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