Caution before Donald Trump-Narendra Modi meeting
Washington D.C. June 25: If the first twelve hours are any indication, India is playing the D.C. game with caution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in the city was at 9 p.m. on Saturday with no raucous Gujarati and Punjabi expats dancing and singing at the airport or at Willard Intercontinental, where he is staying. There were no drums and no Bollywood songs to greet him on arrival. The NRI community is probably saving it for their event in Virginia Sunday afternoon.
The visit itself is over the weekend, which incidentally is sacrosanct in this city, set aside for family and chores, not for meetings with foreign dignitaries.
The Prime Minister has only two engagements scheduled for Sunday – meetings with CEOs at 10 a.m. and later the NRI event in Virginia, a few miles away from the city. This is very unlike his earlier visits to this city where Modi would begin the day with breakfast meetings and go on till late evening, meeting with several Congressmen and senators, business honchos, diaspora leaders, community representatives, BJP workers from various US cities, admirers waiting for selfies and finding time to walk up to a Martin Luther King memorial or some such tourist spot.
The focus this time seems to be just to get to know the highly unpredictable and mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump. On Saturday, Prime Minister Modi waited for the American President to tweet a welcome before himself tweeting that he looked forward to the meeting at the White House. In that he was not disappointed. Barely had Prime Minister Modi taken off from Lisbon for D.C. that the US President tweeted a welcome note from the official handle. If the Indian PM read the tweet in Air India One over the Atlantic, he did not reply till he touched down at the Joint base Andrews.
The PM’s official handle, however, did not tweet anything about landing in the U.S. From Portugal tweets, it went on to Mann Ki Baat, Rath Yatra and Eid tweets. Both President Trump and Prime Minister Modi have some 50 million followers between their two handles that they each operate. While it is quite obvious that Trump’s tweets are his own doing and oftentimes knee jerk reactions to perceived insults, Modi’s tweets are carefully constructed and poised.
However, expect some gushing and photos of two hand grips and awkward hugs that are sure to make it to the tweets of the two leaders. When a leader of the most powerful democracy and the leader of the most populous democracy meet for the first time, you can be certain that there will be a social media flutter.
However, it doesn’t take long for some outrage to break out on social media and that is probably just what the Indian side would not want before the Trump-Modi meeting takes place. There is relatively little notice that the American media has taken of PM Modi’s arrival and White House meeting of Monday, which this time is seen as a welcome sign by the Indian side. Indians have many concerns regarding Trump’s H1-B visa cut back, racial attacks on Indians and way in which the new administration wants to take forward the relationship with India. However, such topics will probably not come up for discussion in the one-on-one meeting on Monday and be left to the delegations to flesh out.
The American media has also not dwelt too much on India-Pakistan relationship, Kashmir situation or cow vigilantism that has dominated the news cycle in India. Most American reporting has been on the robust trade and defense relations between India and the US which has bi-partisan support. Since 2008, India has signed defence contracts worth more than $15 billion and is reportedly on the verge of buying USD 2 billion worth of unarmed drones from America. The media and the Trump administration so far has concentrated on these topics rather than on India’s internal matters.
But there are stray reports like the one in The Hill this week by David Curry, former CEO of The Rescue Mission and current President and CEO of Open Doors USA, a global advocate for persecuted Christians. Recently back from a visit to India, he writes that he hopes President Trump would utilise his meeting with the Indian Prime Minister to highlight the predicament of minorities in India.
He writes that that President Trump “should address religious freedom openly in negotiations and link the economic goals of a partnering country with our standards of human rights and religious freedom.”
Curry claims that in a recent visit to India he “witnessed firsthand accounts of pastors imprisoned and churches attacked by mobs of Hindu radicals, not to mention the abysmal saga of Compassion International, wherein the Indian government’s crackdown-on this and other organizations-has led to tens of thousands of children throughout India losing access to medical care, meals and tuition.”
The Modi government has bitter-sweet memories of President Barack Obama’s visit to India in 2015 when after a near completion of a successful visit, he gave a sharp taunt in his last event. At the Siri Fort Auditorium, the American President advised Indians to ensure religious tolerance in the country.
He said, “Every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear of discrimination.” He further said, “Nowhere is that more important than India, nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld. India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith, along lines of anything, and is unified as one nation.”
The Modi government had to work doubly hard to contain the political damage caused by those comments. But India could do well to revisit that advice today.
Trump meanwhile is not expected to waive the flag of tolerance for religious minorities. If anything, his Muslim travel ban and his anti-Muslim rhetoric is a clear indication that protection of rights of religious minorities in the US or elsewhere, figure nowhere on his to-do list.
Six months into his term, President Trump has still not found the people to fill administrative posts. Meanwhile trouble spots are erupting in different parts of the world demanding American attention. With his eyes more focussed on domestic politics, there is little chance that Trump would want to rap India on the knuckles and disrupt the one relationship that seems to be on an even keel as of now.