the american president can expect a warm welcome in modis india 11 - The American president can expect a warm welcome in Modi’s India

But his flying visit is not entirely all hat and no cattle


THE ENCOUNTER will be “brief and intense,” promises India’s foreign ministry. Scheduled to fit into 36 hours, Donald Trump’s first visit to India on February 24th and 25th will certainly be short. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a fellow iconoclastic populist who has already met the American president seven times, is packing it with passion, too.

On their first day Mr Trump and his wife Melania will be wowed by bused-in crowds along a processional route to a brand-new cricket stadium—the world’s largest—in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat. (Mr Trump declared that 7m people would be turning out to greet him, then upped his bid to 10m; in fact the stadium holds 125,000 and the roadside throngs are likely to be of a similar number.) The First Couple will also enjoy a romantic interlude before the cameras at the world’s greatest monument to love, the Taj Mahal. Day two brings them to Delhi, the capital, for more substantive meetings and fancier official banquets.

Mr Modi has pulled out all the stops to ensure a great photo shoot. Authorities in Gujarat have speedily built a 500-metre wall to obscure anything unsightly. The Yamuna river that passes by the Taj, a stinky trickle in the current dry season, has been flushed and topped up. Mr Trump is sure to enjoy the warmth of welcome in a country where he is by some measures more popular than in his own. A recent poll by Pew reveals that 56% of Indians are confident that the American president will “do the right thing” in world affairs.

Mr Modi hopes, in part, to top the pomp that surrounded his own visit to America in September, which was capped by a joint “Howdy Modi” floor show with Mr Trump in front of a cheering stadium-full of Indian-Americans in Texas. But he and Mr Trump share another goal. Following his brush with impeachment, the American president’s credentials as an international statesman need burnishing. And Mr Modi, although still mightily popular, has in recent months faced unwonted anger and concerted opposition at home. He would very much like to change the subject away from his government’s fumbling economic policy and disturbing delight in sectarian division; controversial changes to citizenship laws in December have sparked some of the most sustained and widespread civil protests in decades.

But the get-together is not just about the mutual boosting of two vote-hungry political goliaths. Although relations between the world’s most powerful and populous democracies have often been surprisingly fraught, the past two decades have seen a surge in bilateral trade and a growing convergence of strategic interests, particularly regarding China. The two big democracies have in recent years signed a series of military co-operation deals. These fall short of anything like an alliance, with India remaining prickly about retaining its own strategic priorities, but indicate a growing American desire to see India act as a strategic regional partner. Distancing itself from Pakistan, a country that for decades America lavished with military aid, has done much to appease the Indians.

The Trump visit is unlikely to lead to a dramatic shift of relations into higher gear. But the calibre of the American delegation, which includes senior son-in-law Jared Kushner, the secretaries of energy and commerce, and Mr Trump’s national security adviser, displays a seriousness of purpose.

Both sides will be keen to play up the positive gains. These include the likely sealing of several lucrative arms deals (including two helicopter purchases) for India’s air force and navy, worth a combined $3.5bn, and the possible initialisation of a $1.9bn air-defence missile shield for the Indian capital. Another fat contract may go to Tellurian, an American LNG supplier. India’s state-owned gas importer, Petronet, plans to invest $2.5bn in a Louisiana plant in return for rights to up to 5m tons of gas a year. Some progress is also expected in a long-stalled deal for American nuclear reactors, inked in 2008. The 6,000MW multi-reactor Westinghouse plant was delayed by factors including American wariness of India’s supplier-repellent liability laws and the American company’s 17-month spell in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

A grand trade deal of the sort Mr Trump loves to trumpet looks much less likely. His administration has markedly toughened America’s attitude to India on trade, with the president himself repeatedly depicting India as a protectionist villain. (During his tenure, Mr Modi has repeatedly raised both tariff and non-tariff barriers, though America’s discontent also seems to lie with India’s $25bn surplus in bilateral trade.)

Tensions rose when India was hit by tariffs on steel and aluminium in March 2018. Then, citing Indian price controls on some medical devices, among other trade barriers, his administration terminated the special designation India had enjoyed since the 1970s, which had allowed $6bn-worth of goods duty-free entry into the American market every year. India retaliated by slapping punitive tariffs on American farm produce, chemicals and steel.

Since then Indian and American trade negotiators have made some progress, battling through a thicket of mutual barriers and recriminations, to repair some of this damage. Negotiators have been trying to put together a modest package, including tariff lines for India to cut that would benefit American exporters but not Chinese ones. But too many obstacles remain, at a time when both governments are wary of offering any trade concessions, to allow for more than noisy tinkering at this stage.

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