In a far cry from the Madison Square Garden extravaganza in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing visit to the US could be a “low-key” affair, according to sections of the media. Apprehensions and possible challenges ahead of the maiden meeting between US President Donald Trump and PM Modi seem to have taken precedence over grand galas.
The Washington Post has described the current visit as “no-frills” and one lacking in the “pomp” of PM Modi’s earlier trips during President Barack Obama’s time. Citing unnamed US officials, a Reuters report also described PM Modi’s two-day visit US as relatively “low-key”.
However, it appears that keeping things low isn’t just about figuring out where India-US ties are headed under the (relatively) new administration in Washington. Writing for the Times of India, Chidanand Rajghatta argues that the lack of fanfare this time is also for not “ruffling” any feathers in the Trump White House. This concern, he writes, is the reason behind keeping a meeting between PM Modi and US industry captains, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, among others, low key.
Why could the event rub the Trump administration the wrong way? According to agency reports, the tougher H-1B visa regime under Trump will be one of the topics under discussion at the meeting. Rajghatta describes the meeting as an attempt at “quietly lobbying” Trump to tone down his “nationalistic rhetoric” when it comes to commerce. Such topics may not sit too well with Trump and co, especially if they are highlighted in the media with the same enthusiasm as everything else PM Modi has done in his past US visits.
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However, the biggest indication that things are different this time around comes from the Prime Minister’s planned interactions with the expat community in the US. According to agency reports, PM Modi will be attending an Indian-American community event in the Washington DC suburb of Virginia. The programme is likely to be attended by about 600 members of the community. Compare this to the crowd of 19,000 that cheered ‘Modi, Modi’ at Madison Square Garden in 2014. Rajghatta is of the view that this is part of a “conscious effort” to not offend Trump, who has shown that he is fond of boasting about the numbers he pulls during his rallies.
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Less noise, more focus on where ties are headed
In fact, it appears that the Indian side is more concerned about keeping the decibel low as it goes about assessing Trump’s policy towards India and the country’s position in the US’ foreign policy calculus under the new administration.
“Many decisions he (Trump) has taken so far have the potential to undermine important American interests — and India’s interests as well,” explained Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs Ashley J Tellis says in an interview with Asian Age ahead of the visit. “I think Trump has an intuitive sense about India’s relevance. But unlike Presidents Bush and Obama, I do not think Trump views India’s significance in terms of a desirable global architecture — at least not yet. In fact, he seems deeply uncomfortable with any conception of international order,” Tellis added.
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Fears in New Delhi that India might have dropped off Washington’s radar do not seem to be too unfounded. “Since his inauguration, Trump has filled few key India-focused appointments in his government. As a result, engagement with the new US administration has been light,” writes Shailesh Kumar, senior analyst (Asia) at the Eurasia Group, a firm that helps investors and business decision-makers understand the impact of politics on the risks and opportunities in foreign markets.
In his interview, Tellis said Trump did not have an India policy yet. However, Kumar sees the lack of focus on India so far as something that PM Modi could use to his advantage. Kumar argues that Trump, unlike past Presidents, is still “impressionable with respect to South Asia”. This, Kumar says, could be leveraged by PM Modi to “strongly advocate” India’s views on the challenges in its neighbourhood – from the threat of terrorism from Pakistan to China’s continuing inroads into the region and its alliance with Islamabad.
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However, by no means is this vacuum in India policy being viewed as a positive development. In a note cited by a Reuters report ahead of the visit, Kumar and Eurasia Group’s Sasha Riser-Kositsky wrote that there was a “palpable fear” in New Delhi about Trump’s lack of focus on India.
Worries over whether India has lost some of its significance in Washington are echoed by other analysts, too. Foreign policy writer and journalist, Seema Sirohi, in her article for thewire.in, writes that the meeting with Trump might be Modi’s most challenging with a foreign leader to date. “Modi will have to assess whether Indo-US relations will remain upwardly mobile and stay on the trajectory set by former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, or if ties will plateau in the short term under Trump,” Sirohi writes.