PM Modi’s Trump-Card Fails!

by Nilofar Suhrawardy 27 February 2020

Image source: Nilofar Suhrawardy

If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed that United States’ President Donald Trump’s brief India-visit would play a great role in enhancing his political and diplomatic image, he has been proved wrong. Even before Mr Trump had left India, communal tension in select parts of capital city gained substantial coverage in India, United States as well as other parts of the world. If tension had not been provoked deliberately by extremist elements, assumed to be linked with saffron brigade, the situation would have been different. But tension while Mr Trump was in Delhi led media and other means of communication pay attention to both issues. In fact, the Trump-card, sought to be played by Mr Modi was pushed to the backburner or at least given lesser coverage than earlier expected. Headlines and reports focusing on Mr Trump’s visit also paid attention to Delhi being rocked by violence during this period. Clearly, if peace had prevailed in Delhi, diplomatic gains expected from US President’s visit would definitely have helped more in boosting image of Mr Trump as well as Mr Modi.

Rather, despite Mr Modi having gone overboard in making arrangements for US President’s visit, extremist elements allegedly linked with his own party contributed to puncturing his efforts. This was also fairly obvious at the press conference held by Mr Trump prior to his heading back to United States. This was marked by questions raised by journalists accompanying him and Indian journalists. He was questioned on Muslims being discriminated against, violence in the capital city and also on Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Diplomatically, Mr Trump chose not to answer these questions, describing them as internal problems of India. He also described Mr Modi as a “very, very strong” person. The underlying meaning cannot be missed. Diplomatically, it was certainly not appropriate for Mr Trump to say anything critical about Mr Modi and that too while in India.

At the same time, the issue of “religious freedom” was not ignored by Mr Trump. While answering questions on violence in Delhi and related issues, he said, “So, we did talk about religious freedom. And I will say that the Prime Minister was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly. And he said that in India they have – they have worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom…” From this it may be inferred, that Mr Modi tried convincing Mr Trump about “religious freedom” in India. At the same time, Mr Trump was apparently not oblivious to communal violence in Delhi. This is reflected from his remark, “…relative to other places… they have really worked hard on religious freedom.” In other words, in comparison to other places (marked by great violence in name of religion), India is witness to much lesser degree of violence. This view may be analyzed from two angles, one that Mr Trump has not given it much importance. At the same, the hard fact that it has not been ignored by the American President cannot be viewed as a minor issue. Irrespective of numerous compliments showered by Mr Trump on Mr Modi, describing him as a “good friend,” “strong person” and so forth, that India remains home to violence in name of religion has certainly not been sidelined by the American President. That he chose to refer to this subtly without raising any diplomatic storm over is another side of the story.

The preceding point may also be suggestive of a diplomatic “itch” for Mr Modi from the American leader. Paradoxically, this was not the only diplomatic itch for Indian premier. With respect to his stand on sensitive as well as controversial issues such as Kashmir-issue and terrorism linked with Indo-Pak ties, Mr Trump’s views make it difficult to accept that he has been totally convinced by whatever was communicated to him by Mr Modi. While replying to a question on the issue, he pointed out, “there are two sides to every story.” In addition, he laid emphasis on his having “a very good relationship with (Pakistan) Prime Minister Khan.” “I’ll do whatever I have to do, if I can do that because my relationship with both gentlemen is good.” “And it’s no question it’s a problem, but it’s a problem they have- they’re (India and Pakistan) working on it.”  

In brief, a close analysis of comments made by Mr Trump during his press conference is hardly suggestive of any major diplomatic victory for the Indian premier. And this is one side of US-Indo ties reflected by President Trump’s visit.

President Trump’s address at Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad (Gujarat) throws light on yet another side of Indo-US ties. It won’t be surprising if “research” down the years exposes investigations engaged in prior to American President’s recent visit to India. Of course, some amount of research may be viewed as essential for diplomatic engagements at this level, particular concerning United States’ President, that too Mr Trump’s first visit to India. Well, research mentioned here does not refer to eye-brows raised over issues related to their trade. Nor is it regarding United States’ stand towards India’s nuclear-drive, Indo-Pak relations, Kashmir-issue, or even CAA. Except for CAA, USA academicians, diplomats and others specifically deputed have been engaged in research as well as investigation over other issues for quite some time. Their recent “research,” assuming that it was engaged in, had nothing or little to do with much-publicized wall specifically built in Ahmedabad for Mr Trump’s visit.

Well, who does not know what a wall is and numerous purposes that it can be used for. Those keeping a hawk’s eye on whatever has been stated in Indian circles don’t need to do much research on this wall. What probably engaged Mr Trump and his delegation’s concern was “cricket” stadium, from where he addressed around 125,000 Indians as a part of “Namaste Trump” program. Research engaged on this word is not simply suggested by Mr Trump taking name of two Indian cricketers- Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli in his speech. In all probability, sans “cricket-research,” Mr Trump and most members of his delegation weren’t even aware of who these two cricket-celebrities were.

It is possible, if world’s largest cricket stadium was not venue of Namaste Trump rally, US team may not have paid much attention to the word, “cricket.” Nothing is really intriguing about this word for cricket-crazy Indians. But the same cannot be said about Americans. Basketball, football, base-ball, ice-hockey, tennis are some of the popular games there, with cricket hardly anywhere in their list of favorite games. Of course, ever since, the game has gained great commercial importance, oft and on, news is heard about American cricket teams. But popularity as well as knowledge about this game is still in a stage of infancy there.

In fact, mention the word cricket to a common American and you are likely to be given a dazed, quizzical look. Quite a few are not familiar with cricket as a game. Most associate the word cricket with an insect. Talk about bat ‘n’ ball, it is instantly thought of as base-ball which has a far more different pitch, bat, etc, than cricket. Naturally, when US government learnt that their President would be addressing a huge crowd at the largest cricket stadium in the world, they were compelled to indulge in some research on the subject. It is not easy to instantly link insects with any stadium. But then, there are quite a few differences between India and United States which cannot be easily linked. Dress-wise, saree, dhoti and religious symbols such as bindis, tilaks, etc., aren’t easily understood by most Americans. So, cricket may have fallen in the same bracket. Research on the subject apparently led to inclusion of two Indian cricketers’ names in Mr Trump’s speech. 

Nevertheless, President Trump and his team must have been fairly amazed at shape of Motera Stadium. It seemed hardly similar to bat ‘n’ ball, that is baseball grounds they were familiar with. In this context, one cannot even say that East is East, West is West and Never the Twain Shall Meet. After all, British are almost as crazy about cricket (the game) as are Indians. What has refrained Americans from not knowing, learning and playing the game with this enthusiasm demands historical research on the issue. At present, Namaste Trump program organized at Motera Stadium can from no longer be viewed as a sign of any cricket-diplomacy being engaged in or even being considered by either of the two countries.

Cricket the game is not the only issue, which is popular in India but almost alien to most Americans. The other, which has from almost day one of his assuming as the Prime Minister been given great importance by Mr Modi is the broom-stick. Yes, this is closely associated with his Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, that is his cleanliness program. This program was seriously followed in preparation for Mr Trump’s brief India-visit in Ahmedabad as well as Agra. This scribe has been through the experience of hunting for broom-sticks in American shops. They weren’t very familiar with what a broom-stick was. Well, this is not surprising as vacuum-cleaners and wipers are largely used there.

Broom-stick has been specifically taken note of as Mr Modi has tried using it as his political trump-card while promoting his accomplishments. It is astonishing that this was not referred to by Mr Trump during his address at Motera Stadium. Well, if Mr Modi’s team had included broom-stick anywhere in Mr Trump’s India-visit, the American team would certainly have paid some attention to research on this subject too and it would have probably been referred to in their president’s speech at the stadium. Perhaps, it was sensible of Mr Modi’s team to ignore the broom-stick. Not because, it is alien to most Americans but talking of broom-diplomacy does not strike a positive note for those familiar with it. Broom’s role should remain confined to internal politicking, whether at home or the country. Be it cricket or broom, diplomacy on neither front, touches Indo-US relations.

If Mr Modi had assumed that US President’s India-visit would play a great role in inflating his image in the country and across the world, his agenda has been crushed by his own grass-root supporters, the saffron brigade. Politically and diplomatically, bloodshed in parts of North East Delhi-targeting minorities, has only punctured his Trump-card!       

The author at the press briefing

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