Donald Trump may be wearing the hat of the president of the United States but at heart, he is a thoroughbred businessman. So when he arrives in India on February 24 for a two-day visit it is not a trip to merely advance diplomacy but one that will make sure ‘reticent’ India will open up for more US businesses.
In the last few days, Trump has already given out a slew of statements – his frustration at India’s reluctance to open up the country for more US corporates, his acknowledgement at the failure to get India agree to a ‘big’ trade deal but sugar-coating his irritation with a concession – that he likes Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In the four years he has been in power, Trump has not hesitated to arm-twist nations that he felt obstructed his vision. He all but started a trade war with China in an attempt to force Beijing to cut down on tariffs, he removed India from the list of countries the US had accorded preferential trade and even the European Union, a close traditional ally, has not been spared.
Other than a chosen few, the large majority are not in the know of what Modi has promised Trump in India. Already there is some controversy over what exactly Trump was told about the number of people who would standby to greet the world’s most powerful politician in Ahmedabad. Trump has insisted it is upwards of seven million, just one million short of Ahmedabad’s total population.
Indian officials scrambled to clarify that at most there would be two lakh people standing by to see Trump’s entourage as it speeds out of Ahmedabad for a short drive. But, Trump continues to quote the seven million number, even increasing it to 10 million when that many don’t live in Ahmedabad. That is what makes him Trump – unpredictable, unhesitatingly belligerent and effusive when it suits him.
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From various accounts, it would appear that the US president would be happiest if India had agreed to a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), that has been in the air since he took over office in 2016.
Trump, by his own admission, shares good chemistry with Modi but that will not be enough to get the FTA through. If not the FTA, the Trump administration was hoping to sign deals at least in select areas mainly in dairy, agriculture and medical sectors – a so-called ‘mini deal. But, from the looks of it, none of these has fructified.
The optics between the two countries are generally hopeful, but in reality despite Trump’s hard negotiating positions it is inconceivable that any Indian government, be it Modi or any other formation like the Congress-led UPA, will ever be able to afford unbridled access to imports in the economic sector for any country, least of all, the United States.
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Take for instance the dairy sector. India is largely self-sufficient. In 2003, India imposed restrictions demanding that US poultry and milk be certified against paratuberculosis as part of sanitary requirements. This effectively blocked off US dairy exports to India. Since then, US officials have pressured India to ease these restrictions, but in vain. Indian governments, including the present Modi dispensation, may have been interested in acceding to the US for extraneous benefits vis-a-vis Pakistan (among other reasons) but the fact that 70 million local families depend on the dairy sector has prevented New Delhi from handing over the keys to Trump.
For the US president India is therefore a frustrating customer. On the one hand, New Delhi has never been closer to Washington than now. India has signed defence deals worth $15 billion since 2008. Compare that with earlier deals that totalled a mere $500 million.
In fact, defence deals may be the face-saver during the upcoming visit. India is expected to sign an agreement to buy 24 MH-60 Seahawk multi-role naval helicopters worth $2.6 billion and six additional AH-64 Apache attack helicopters worth $930 million.
Modi’s official Air India aircraft, among others, may be bolstered by the American National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) if the deal comes through.
Yet, the apparent closeness in ties between the two does not present the full picture. For the US, India is a nation that meets its expectation somewhat but not entirely. Besides the opening up of the dairy sector, for instance, is the reluctance to sign a Free Trade Agreement. India resists being taken for granted. At the same time, the US goes ahead with its agenda notwithstanding New Delhi’s objections.
From Ahmedabad Trump is scheduled to fly to Afghanistan to sign a peace agreement with the Taliban – something that India is wary about and has in fact expressed serious reservations as that may go against its interests while furthering Pakistan’s. At the recent FATF (Financial Action Task Force) meeting the US apparently supported Pakistan, preventing it from slipping into the blacklist.
The US, while courting India for its markets, has historically made it appear as if it was doing a favour by selling New Delhi its wares. The Indo-US nuclear deal signed in 2008 was made to look as if India was the sole beneficiary. What was not publicised was that it came as a huge relief for the US nuclear industry which was struggling with stagnation. It is another matter that the deal has not rolled out smoothly as the liability issue (in case of accidents) is yet to be resolved.
Trump, not known to conform to diplomatic niceties, therefore makes statements that confound everyone. While he expresses disdain for Indian officials he ‘likes’ Modi. He then says he has not been treated well by India. Trump then goes on to say a ‘big deal’ will be signed with India later, without specifying when.
Clearly, the salesman is not sure whether to feel happy at what he has been able to sell to his customer or remain frustrated that the customer is not buying all that he has to sell.