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February 26, 2020

Trump's clamorous, carefully choreographed India welcome was about Asian geopolitics

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Feb 26: Looking out over the world’s largest cricket stadium, the seats jammed with more than 100,000 people, India’s prime minister heaped praise on his American visitor.

“The leadership of President Trump has served humanity,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday, highlighting Trump’s fight against terrorism and calling his 36-hour visit to India a watershed in India-U.S. relations.

The crowds cheered. Trump beamed.

“The ties between India and the U.S. are no longer just any other partnership,” Modi said. “It is a far greater and closer relationship.”

India, it seems, loves Donald Trump. It seemed obvious from the thousands who turned out to wave as his motorcade snaked through the city of Ahmedabad, and from the tens of thousands who filled the city’s new stadium. It seemed obvious from the hug that Modi gave Trump after he descended from Air Force One, and from the hundreds of billboards proclaiming Trump’s visit.

But it’s not so simple.

Because while Trump is genuinely popular in India, his clamorous and carefully choreographed welcome was also about Asian geopolitics, China’s growing power and a masterful Indian politician who gave his American visitor exactly what he wanted.

Modi “is doing this not necessarily because he loves Trump,” said Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “It’s very much about Trump as the leader of the U.S. and recognizing what it is that Trump himself likes.”

Trump likes crowds — big crowds — and the foot soldiers of India’s political parties have long known how to corral enough people to make any politician look popular. In a city like Ahmedabad, the capital of Modi’s home state of Gujarat and the center of his power base, it wouldn’t take much effort to fill a cavernous sports stadium. It was more surprising that a handful of seats remained empty, and that some in the stands had left even before Trump had finished his speech.

For India, good relations with the U.S. are deeply important: They signal that India is a serious global player, an issue that has long been important to New Delhi, and help cement an alliance that both nations see as a counterweight to China’s rise.

“For both countries, their biggest rival is China,” said John Echeverri-Gent, a professor at the University of Virginia whose research often focuses on India. “China is rapidly expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean, which India has long considered its backyard and its exclusive realm for security concerns.”

“It’s very clearly a major concern for both India and the United States,” he said.

Trump isn’t the first U.S. president that Modi has courted. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama was the first American chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade, a powerful symbolic gesture. Obama also got a Modi hug, and the media in both countries were soon writing about the two leaders’ “bromance.”

Trump is popular in India, even if some of that is simply because he’s the U.S. president. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll showed that 56% of Indians had confidence in Trump’s abilities in world affairs, one of only a handful of countries where he has that level of approval. But Obama was also popular: Before he left office, he had 58% approval in world affairs among Indians.

The Pew poll also indicated that Trump’s support was higher among supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.

That’s not surprising. Both men have fired up their nationalist bases with anti-Muslim rhetoric and government policies, from Trump’s travel bans to Modi’s crackdown in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

And Trump’s Indian support is far from universal. Protests against his trip roiled cities from New Delhi to Hyderabad to the far northeastern city of Gauhati, although those demonstrations were mostly overshadowed by protests over a new Indian citizenship law that Modi backs.

Modi, who is widely popular in India, has faced weeks of protests over the law, which provides fast track naturalization for some foreign-born religious minorities — but not Muslims. While Trump talked about ties with India on Tuesday, Hindus and Muslims fought in violent clashes that left at least 10 people dead over two days.

In some ways, Modi and Trump are powerful echoes of each other.

They have overlapping political styles. Both are populists who see themselves as brash, rule-breaking outsiders who disdain their countries’ traditional elites. Both are seen by their critics as having authoritarian leanings. Both surround themselves with officials who rarely question their decisions.

But are they friends?

Trump says yes. “Really, we feel very strongly about each other,” he said at a New Delhi press briefing.

But many observers aren’t so sure.

“The question is how much of this is real chemistry, as opposed to what I’d call planned chemistry” orchestrated for diplomatic reasons, said Madan. “It’s so hard to know if you’re not in the room.”

Certainly, Modi understands America’s importance to India. While the two countries continue to bicker about trade issues, the prime minister organized a welcome that impressed even India’s news media, which have watched countless choreographed mass political rallies.

“There is no other country for whose leader India would hold such an event, and for which an Indian prime minister would lavish such rhetoric,” the Hindustan Times said in an editorial.

“The spectacle and the sound were worth a thousand agreements.”

Trump's clamorous, carefully choreographed India welcome was about Asian geopolitics

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