On Monday, when US president Donald Trump meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, it will be their fifth meeting in eight months. Four of these five have been on the sidelines of multilateral events across the globe, including one in US itself on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last September.
The visit to India, for President Trump, is his maiden one and even though there are several questions being raised about the deliverables for India during this visit, a senior government source said that for emerging powers, incoming visits should not be seen only in transactional terms. Not every visit can have big ticket deliverables.
So, what do visits of this nature achieve and what goes on in the background to pull off these high-profile visits? Let's take the example of President Trump's visit itself. India has awaited his visit for a good two years. It was in 2018 that India sent feelers to Washington DC with the idea that he would be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.
The Modi government had managed to get former president Barack Obama as chief guest in 2016, making him the first American president to grace the prestigious occasion. Though this was in the last year of his presidency. But not only did the White House not respond to the request, the eternal wait saw media reporting on the same, further complicating matters.
The Ministry of External Affairs managed to save face by suggesting the invite was an open one and that Trump could visit India whenever he desired.
Setting the dates for a visit is just one part of the humongous preparation effort. Starting from routine matters such as security, protocol, locations and their significance to the more concrete things like talking points during the meetings, both delegation-level and the restricted meeting between leaders, to the joint statement are not just time-consuming but entail constant engagement between the two sides.
With a powerful leader like the US president, the Secret Service vets all locations and takes calls on where he can or can't go. For instance, it seems that the agency cut the roadshow route from 22 kilometres to 9 kilometres Ahmedabad, removing Sabarmati Ashram from the course. One of the reasons cited was the curves posing an issue for pilot cars in the president's motorcade.
On issues like the joint statement, work remains on till the very last minute. A joint statement is not just a message of intent, but reflects the depth of relationship and is hence considered a very important aspect of diplomacy. As former diplomat Vishnu Prakash explained "the more important the visit, more critical are the discussions" surrounding the joint statement. He also points out that the discussions happen virtually till the last minute and some paragraphs could be bracketed for the external affairs minister or principals to look into.
A senior government source also said India is looking at a powerful joint statement that is strongly-worded on terror and which shows intent for a future Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The US would also include mention Indo-Pacific.
One question often asked is why have these bilateral visits when leaders hold talks on the sidelines of multilateral global events? Vishnu Prakash said in simplistic terms, the difference is between meeting in a hotel or restaurant and inviting someone home, which is "always more memorable." That aside, Prakash said a bilateral visit gives the leaders more time to spend together, as seen in Chinese president Xi Jinping's Mahaballipuram visit when he spent ten hours with Modi. That gives leaders an opportunity to discuss ties threadbare whereas the bilaterals, sometimes called pull-asides, don't end up being longer than 30 to 45 minutes.
Some have also blamed outstanding bilateral issues between countries for over-shadowing meetings of groupings, for example the SAARC forum. More often than not, the entire focus veers towards issues between India and Pakistan rather than the grouping. Since 2016, there has been no summit-level meeting since India boycotted the one in Islamabad after the Uri terror attack.
As India rolls out the red carpet for President Trump, which has the added element of a huge rally in Ahmedabad, questions have also been raised on the cost of such an event. This apart from the usual bilateral meeting held in Delhi's Hyderabad House.
The estimated cost of the Ahmedabad event has been reported as Rs 100 crore, though no official figure has been put forth. Two lakh people will be involved in the event.
However, many have pointed out that this trip offers New Delhi many advantages: From this being an opportunity to showcase India to a powerful leader, to the country as an emerging power putting on such larger than life events so that the outside world takes notice.
Many diplomats believe that with the existing geo-political dynamic, soft diplomacy has to be mixed with hard-nosed negotiations to be able to manoeuvre across tricky international situations and for that, bilateral visits such as these are vital.
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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2020 22:54:07 IST