Home / Opinion / Views /  No trade deal with Trump still a win for India

US President Donald Trump’s India visit has ended successfully for both sides. No trade deal could be signed. India was willing to be accommodative, but the US side decided to wait for a more ambitious deal later in the year—which is a code word for pressuring India on a wider front in the interim. This came out implicitly in Trump’s press conference where he cited his tussle with China and repeated his ill-considered references to India as a tariff king, which is factually wrong, and 100% duty on Harley-Davidson motorcycles when India had offered to bring duties on these motor bikes to zero during the negotiations, to be only told that the US side was no longer interested in obtaining this concession. Trump’s decision to come without a trade deal in the offing gave us the opportunity to make him experience an ego-boosting trip, which was done with panache.

The welcome given to him was exceptional, as no other country can give him a reception on the scale that he got at Ahmedabad. He has been overwhelmed by it, judged by his many comments. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was astute in giving pointed attention to Trump’s family in his remarks at the Motera stadium.

Trump was exceedingly generous in his personal references to Modi in his address, calling him “an exceptional leader", a “champion of India", a “great Prime Minister", a “tremendously successful leader", noting his electoral victory in the largest election anywhere.

At a time when highly undignified criticism has been heaped on Modi by political, media and civil society circles in India and liberal circles in the West as well, this kind of endorsement, repeated again in his press conference showed that Trump does not give it political importance and that the Modi-Trump equation is strong at the personal level.

The joint press conference went off smoothly, with Modi describing ties as a comprehensive global partnership, covering defence, security, technology, connectivity, trade, terrorism, energy, industry 4.0, innovation, enterprise, education, the Indo-Pacific, and people-to-people ties. He mentioned the understandings reached between the two commerce ministers that will be reduced to a legal form, and the start of negotiations on “a big trade deal".

Trump characterized the visit as “very productive", mentioned the $3 billion worth of defence deals signed, referred to combat against radical Islamic terrorism, US pressuring Pakistan on “terrorism on its soil", secure 5G networks, and high quality infrastructure. He noted the 60% increase in US exports to India during his presidency and the 500% increase in energy exports.

Trump’s decision to hold a press conference of his own would have raised some Indian jitters, as he can be rambling and unstructured in his replies. It was an open invitation to the Indian media to ask provocative questions, given that the US side had announced that he would raise questions about religious freedom in India with Modi, for example. In the event, Trump refused to comment on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, or the rioting in Delhi which he called India’s internal affair. He said he had raised the issue of religious freedom at length with Modi but controlled the damage by saying that Modi made a “powerful" and re-assuring response. On Kashmir, he unnecessarily waffled on his willingness to mediate, showing his lack of diplomatic finesse in view of India’s repeated rejection on any mediation.

Questioning the utility and outcome of the visit by the Opposition is totally misplaced. It is absurd to suggest that we would have been better off if Trump had not come. If international meetings and all bilateral visits have to be judged by the concrete results produced, the definition of diplomacy would have to be changed.

Such visits by a head of state, especially of a country with which we have the most wide-ranging relationship, with huge untapped potential for fuelling our growth and modernization, are most important.

These are relationship-building visits that serve as signalling mechanisms too. Trump was accompanied by key officials involved in building ties with India, and their exposure to discussions and understandings reached is important in follow through.

If India-US relationship is a defining one for this century, as Modi said, Trump’s visit helps in that definition.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary.

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