CJ Werleman on the meeting of India and America’s two right-wing ‘strong men’.
Donald Trump went to bed on Saturday night, the evening before his flight to India, sharing a video on Twitter in which he portrayed himself to be some sort of swashbuckling crusader. “Look so forward to being with my friends in India,” wrote Trump alongside the video.
In normal times, the amplification of such a violent inference would be universally panned as vicious vulgarity, but for India these are far from normal times – the international watchdog group Genocide Watch recently issued genocide alerts for Muslims in both Kashmir and Assam.
“Preparation for a genocide is definitely under way in India…The next stage is extermination – that’s what we call a genocide,” said Professor Gregory Stanton, the author of the 10 Stages of Genocide in a speech to US lawmakers in December.
Against this backdrop, Trump, who has built his political career by demonising Muslims using the most horrible terms, has arrived in India for a two-day diplomatic extravaganza.
For the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the timing of the visit could not be more perfect, given that his Government has grown increasingly frustrated with its failure to crush nationwide protests against its new anti-Muslim citizenship laws –the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The protests have been led by students and women, but supported by secular Indians of all identities including Muslims, Hindus, Dalits, Christians and Buddhists. The unity found in the cause was best exemplified by a 620 kilometre human chain that stretched from Kasaragod in north Kerala to Kaliyakkavilai in the southernmost part of the state, involving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.
The acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy believes that the Indian Government and its accompanying Hindutva programme has only “one answer to every problem… to ratchet up the hatred, but suddenly young people are saying ‘sorry, we aren’t buying this’.”
While Modi’s leadership is not under immediate threat, his party – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has been suffering defeats at a local level all across the country. Who better to ride into Ahmedabad aboard Air Force One at the Indian Prime Minister’s hour of need than the leader of the world’s sole superpower; a man who implemented his own signature piece of anti-Muslim legislation by executive order – the “Muslim travel ban” – which has denied migrants from half a dozen mostly Muslim-majority countries entering the US?
what the papers don’t say
“India today, with its groveling political and cultural elite, is Mr Trump’s deepest fantasy, flawlessly realised, observes Pankaj Mishra in an op-ed for The New York Times. “A democracy once identified with great names such as Mohandas Gandhi has degenerated into Trumpland – an inferno of systemic brutishness, imbecility and mendacity.”
Ahmedabad is being dressed up like a high budget Bollywood set for ‘Namaste Trump’, with the designated path of Trump’s motorcade scrubbed clean, street beggars removed and a barrier constructed to hide from his view the most impoverished slums, leading Indian social media users to joke that Trump has finally gotten his wall – but India paid for it.
The Indian Government is giving Trump what he most craves – flattery and a sense of heightened self-importance – knowing that it needs the US more than the US needs it, particularly because five years of BJP rule has produced the country’s worst economic downturn in decades, with a stunning 4.5% fall in GDP growth recorded in the July to September quarter of 2019.
What Modi wants most from Trump is an end to the US trade tariff war, further arms deals and access to American farm products. What Trump wants from his trip to India is a photo-op or something he can hold aloft as a foreign policy achievement with the 2020 Presidential Election in sight.
“The [Trump] administration does not have an integrated policy toward India or anyone else for that matter,” Ashley Tellis, an India expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy.
It’s surprising that the India-US relationship hasn’t progressed in recent times, given the similarities between the country’s two leaders. Both are right-wing populists who tap into the dark arts of ultra-nationalism, with Trump portraying white Americans as locked in a ‘do or die’ struggle with non-white immigrants, and Modi framing the country’s Hindu majority to be under threat from its Muslim minority.
Under Modi, India’s democratic institutions have been dismantled and the media neutered. Under Trump, the three separate but equal branches of the US Government have become melded together with the wannabe dictator considering members of Congress and the Justice Department his disposable minions. Both men consider the free press the enemy and their political opponents illegitimate stooges.
Yet, the relationship between the two countries remains constrained by Trump’s obsessive demand for an end to US trade deficits, mostly because the President, after a full three years in office, still doesn’t understand how economies work.
Trump’s $14 million visit to India will do nothing to resolve his self-imposed trade sticking points. What his visit will do is provide India with a diplomatic seal of approval to continue doing whatever it wishes in Kashmir, where eight million Muslims remain subjected to a brutal military lockdown, and Assam, where three million Muslims are faced with the prospect of deportation or indefinite detainment.
There’s also a likely arms deal – because there’s always a lucrative arms deal in Trump’s presidential wheeling and dealing. At some point within the next day or so, India will announce it has procured 24 Seahawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin, a deal expected to exceed $2.6 billion.