A billboard depicting US President Donald Trump with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad, India. Picture: AFP/SAM PANTHAKY
A billboard depicting US President Donald Trump with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad, India. Picture: AFP/SAM PANTHAKY

US President Donald Trump’s state visit to India these past few days is, visually at least, incongruous. Not only because Trump is a lump of a man against the ascetic image of his host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but also because of long-standing trade disputes between the two countries.

But, there is more between the two men than meets the eye. For a start, there is their attitude towards Muslims and the religion of Islam. Trump has taken tough action over his three years as president that show his antipathy towards Muslims almost to the point of being Islamophobic. His list of countries whose citizens are totally unwelcome in the US is almost exclusively those with Muslim majorities.

While there may be no trade talks it is clear that closer ties with India are part of Trump’s strategy to keep China under control. 

Similarly, Modi is under huge pressure domestically, and considerable criticism internationally, for declaring, in a new citizenship policy, that Muslims from neighbouring countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — cannot gain citizenship in India. The ban does not apply to other religions. In August, he stripped Kashmir, a Muslim-majority  state, of its special autonomy and brought it under federal rule.  

Some commentators have described Trump’s visit as high on pomp and ceremony and low on substance. While talking up the possibility of a multibillion-dollar arms deal, the US president has said that substantive trade talks would be on hold until after the November election in the US.

Indeed, the images of Trump and first lady Melania at the Taj Mahal and Mahatma Gandhi’s old ashram in Ahmedabad, as well as the cavalry parade that escorted them into New Delhi, made it look more like a tourist outing than a serious state visit.

The absence of substantive trade talks comes after the US won a World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling against India for its export subsidy programmes. The US, in an approach similar to the one on China, has even threatened an investigation of Indian trade practices. If Trump is trying to use India as a bulwark against China, the absence of trade talks in the wake of the WTO ruling appears to make little sense.

There has also been some criticism of Trump choosing to first go to Gujarat, Modi’s home state where 18 years ago anti-Muslim violence that claimed dozens of lives. Apparently, Trump is on record as having said that religious freedom would be discussed in private.

All of this prompts the question, what do Trump and Modi get out of this state visit?

For Modi it is simple. His guest gets to address a rally of more than 100,000 people in an Ahmedabad cricket stadium. Trump’s rock star appearance would have given Modi legitimacy among his followers and a boost to his brand of Hindu majoritarianism.

Trump, on the other hand, can use the visit to bolster his support among US people of Indian origin, of which there are about 6-million. He must be pondering a strategy to hold off a surging Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic Party candidacy in the presidential election in November.

Ironically, while Trump was impeached for trying to coerce Ukraine into helping him against former deputy president Joe Biden’s campaign, it is Sanders who is emerging as the front-runner in the Democratic Party primaries.

While there may be no trade talks it is clear that closer ties with India are part of Trump’s strategy to keep China under control. That China’s position in world trade has been substantially weakened by the coronavirus, appears not to have entered the equation.

On balance, there seems to be much cynicism on both sides. The visit is about the politics of the now for both Trump and Modi and not the welfare of their respective countries.

India is a major player in the Brazil, India, China, Russia and SA grouping known as Brics. SA has also suffered as a result of recent US trade decisions but when those going at it head to toe are the US, India and China, best we keep our head below the parapet.