Donald Trump in India: Pomp and grandeur have strategic logic in diplomacy; deriding celebrations will be a mistake

  • Even as Donald Trump announced his readiness for the visit through social media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept up his end of the bargain, promising the US president a show that he will never forget.

  • For Narendra Modi, beleaguered in domestic and foreign press for taking a series of hard policy decisions, the arrival of the US president is a tacit endorsement of his moves to remove semi-autonomous status of Kashmir or introducing new legislation on Indian citizenship that has courted controversy.

  • If diplomacy is perceived as a silk-tied affair of clanking wine glasses and hushed tones, Modi and Trump have taken the script and ripped it apart.

Just ahead of flying to India, Donald Trump retweeted a meme expressing his willingness to meet “great friends” in India.

The meme shows President of the United States brandishing his sword, driving a chariot, demolishing rivals in war and emerging victorious. Trump is the hero of Bahubaali, the Indian film that got great success at the box office — his face superimposed on the symbol of Indian popular culture. The meme ends with a promise of a close and friendly relationship between India and the US. Even as Trump announced his readiness for the visit through social media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept up his end of the bargain, promising the US president a show that he will never forget.

Right from the time that Air Force One lands in India, there will be unparalleled visual extravaganza culminating in the mega event ‘Namaste Trump’ at Ahmedabad’s Motera Stadium — India’s bigger and grander answer to ‘Howdy Modi’. The US president’s visit, the pomp and ostentation around it and the naked display of populism have been roundly criticised. Media has called it ‘Amdavad’s Circus Maximus’. Not that it matters to Modi or Trump, who has sounded quite excited at the prospect of millions (the number has courted quite a controversy) cheering and welcoming him along the route from the airport to Motera.

The grandeur, replete with roadshows, floats and 28 stages depicting Indian culture is expected to rival the display on Republic Day almost to make up for the fact that Trump couldn’t attend the 26 January event.

The diplomacy on steroids, fueled by the animated masses has scandalised analysts and bamboozled career foreign service officers who expect visits by foreign dignitaries to be a calm, sober affair where world leaders will descend from the airport, wave perfunctorily at the cameras and vanish into state paraphernalia. They find it a sacrilege, almost, to break the routine of foreign leaders getting a formal reception and then being guided through a series of carefully manicured events and waves of delegation-level meetings culminating in a dry joint statement which nobody reads.

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Teresita Schaffer, a retired US diplomat, whose career has spanned over three decades in and on South Asia, told India Abroad newspaper that the extravaganza would provide “all the symbolism both leaders are looking for — lots of razzle dazzle showmanship, which both are really good at, and a good and very theatrical relationship.”

This snobbery is inexplicable. To begin, everyone loves a good show. Not just Trump. US presidents — as Brookings Institution senior fellow Tanvi Madan has pointed out — have shown their excitement about raucous support in India in the past as Dwight Eisenhower, the first POTUS to visit India, did in 1959:

They have also not been coy about mixing with the public at large too:

If diplomacy is perceived as a silk-tied affair of clanking wine glasses and hushed tones, Modi and Trump have taken the script and ripped it apart. Both leaders are unabashed populists who derive power from the people in the world’s largest and oldest democracies. If the charge against them is that they are pandering to their domestic constituencies, Modi and Trump are showing that there is no reason why we must keep up the pretence that foreign policy must remain insulated from domestic politics because the reality is, it isn’t.

There is a strategic logic behind the pomp and grandeur being accorded to Trump, and for the US president to revel in it. Trump, a notoriously reluctant traveller, is flying from halfway around the globe through a dozen time zones leaving his campaign trail in an election year to be in India. Stands to reason that he wouldn’t have done so purely out of altruism.

Trump has just emerged unhurt from a bruising impeachment attempt, and the spectacle of millions cheering him in a foreign land is a validation of his ‘global leadership’, and good for his ratings back home — deal or no trade deal.

As an article in LA Times points out, “Trump, who has cancelled trips to Poland, Denmark, Peru, Columbia and Switzerland and is known for wanting to sleep in his own bed whenever possible, will make the 7,472-mile trek to India even though a long-sought bilateral trade agreement, despite hurried efforts in recent weeks, appears nowhere close to consummation.”

For Modi, beleaguered in domestic and foreign press for taking a series of hard policy decisions, the arrival of the US president is a tacit endorsement of his moves to remove Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status or introducing new legislation on Indian citizenship that has courted controversy. Not that Modi needs such an endorsement for survival, but it certainly helps to have the POTUS on your side.

As Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at Carnegie and Tata Chair of Strategic Affairs points out: “I believe the visit will be a great success where the optics are concerned — Prime Minister Modi will throw Trump a rousing spectacle he will not forget and it will certainly help to strengthen Trump’s perception of India as a friend of the United States at a time when the executive branch seems to be the best friend India has in the US government.”

The pomp and ostentation aren’t just a PR win for both leaders (that in itself is not insignificant) but also a reinforcement of their personal bond — a factor that has always mattered in diplomacy. That said, foreign policy through populism may result in deliverables for both sides but such gains are likely to be temporal unless the unresolved problems plaguing the relationship are quickly and honestly addressed.

Updated Date: Feb 24, 2020 14:48:51 IST



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