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India invites Trump for R-Day: When events replace serious foreign policy

By inviting Trump, the Modi government is betraying its lack of gumption on the foreign policy front

Archis Mohan  |  New Delhi 

Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, G20 Summit
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in conversation with US President Donald Trump. Photo: PTI

India has invited Donald Trump to attend the celebrations in 2019. Apart from its foreign policy implications, the event, and there should be little doubt that the Narendra will try to turn it into a spectacular 'event', will have a bearing on domestic politics as well.

If the Lok Sabha elections are on schedule, and Trump's visit materialises, it would come barely a couple of months before the onset of the polls in early April.

Hopefully, Prime Minister Modi will not repeat the blooper he committed during a similar visit by as the chief guest for the in 2015.

The visit was supposed to add to his stature, and also help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win the Assembly elections in Delhi, which took place two weeks after Obama's visit.

But Obama's visit turned into an embarrassment for the PM and his government. Modi was caught wearing a suit monogrammed with his name. This led to Congress President Rahul Gandhi calling the a 'suit boot ki sarkar' (a government of and for moneybags) and forced the PM to jettison his government's reformist agenda. Obama also lectured the on the need to maintain religious tolerance. The BJP comprehensively lost the Delhi Assembly polls.

But Trump isn't Obama. He is infinitely more unpredictable. New Delhi's invite to Trump comes in the wake of unsettled India-US bilateral relations. There is uncertainty over the Trump administration's position on H-1B visas and on whether spouses of H-1B visa holders will be allowed to work. The Ministry of External Affairs has been lobbying hard to persuade the US to not tighten rules related to issuing of H-1B visas, but to little avail as yet.

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The US recently postponed its 2+2 dialogue with India, and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on her recent visit to New Delhi dictated to Prime Minister Modi that India should stop importing oil from Iran. There is also an ongoing tariff battle.

For the better part of Modi's prime ministerial tenure, India had largely ignored nursing its relations with its traditional ally Russia or shed even the pretense of keeping Beijing engaged. Modi had invested heavily in consolidating India-US relations, which saw a further uptick during the past two years of the Obama presidency.

But the Trump administration has largely ignored New Delhi. In recent months, the PM has been forced to reach out to Moscow and Beijing. We still do not know what the agenda was of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Modi's body language during his meeting with Xi, and New Delhi's subsequent succumbing to Chinese pressure on a couple of issues, does suggest that he visited China to repair the damage in the relationship caused during his years at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, when India-China bilateral relations had mostly remained at an even keel during the Manmohan Singh years.

By inviting Trump, the Modi government is betraying its lack of gumption on the foreign policy front. The strategy -- of first visiting China, then Russia, and now inviting Trump for the parade -- looks more like 'trial and error' foreign policy.

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It can only be hoped that in India's interests, and that of millions of Indians living and working in the US, who are a source of foreign remittances that are crucial for India's gross domestic product, the Trump visit passes off uneventfully.

First Published: Fri, July 13 2018. 13:10 IST