By all accounts, the India visit of President Donald Trump was a grand success, if one were to judge it as a pure spectacle. The highlight of the trip was a public event at the Motera Stadium, where huge numbers of adoring Indians cheered the United States President. It was perhaps the largest crowd ever drawn by Trump in his short public life. Crowd size apart, how consequential was the Trump visit? Will it have any long-term impact on US-India relations?
In the weeks prior to the visit, all focus was on whether the two countries would sign a blockbuster trade deal. They did not. Apart from a $3-billion defence deal, an agreement between Indian Oil and Exon Mobil to import liquified natural gas and another agreement to collaborate on 5G technology, the two sides did not make much progress on the trade front. Considering that the bilateral trade topped $150 billion last year, the size of the deals announced during the visit, while substantial, were not chartbusters.
It is much too early to judge the historical significance of Trump’s trip. It will take months and years to know its real impact. However, one can safely say that it is far less consequential for bilateral relations than the visits of some of the president’s predecessors, most notably the 2000 visit of President Bill Clinton. That visit, coming less than two years after the United States imposed sanctions on India for conducting nuclear tests in 1998, was a defining moment in India-US relations.
Other historically notable visits include Dwight Eisenhower’s trip — the first time a US president set foot in India — and the 2005 visit of President George W Bush. It was the Bush visit that paved the way for the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, which ended India’s global nuclear isolation.
Significantly, the Trump visit differed from the previous presidential visits in one aspect. The trip was in essence a campaign stop as well. If the tens of thousands of white hats audience in Motera reminded one of a MAGA rally, it was not coincidental. That’s because the short-term impact Trump is seeking is to sway more Indian-American voters to his side. Running for a second term in November, the president is looking to expand his voters from the Indian-American community, one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US.
In 2016, Trump became the first presidential nominee of a major party to publicly court Indian-Americans, when he attended a rally hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey. He continued to woo that community in his joint appearance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Howdy Modi event in Houston last September, in which the two leaders addressed more than 50,000 Indian-Americans.
Most Indian-American voters live in the large states such as California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Texas, all states that are not in play in presidential elections because of current voting patterns. However, the community also has a significant presence in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the battleground states that are likely to decide the presidency in the event of a close election.
In 2016, according to opinion polls, Trump received only a sixth of the Indian-American votes, despite making a big effort to reach out. One reason he was unable to make much headway the last time around was because of the popularity of his opponent.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had a longer history with Indian-Americans and India, having visited the country multiple times, as the US first lady and as the secretary of state. In fact, during the 2008 Democratic primary contested between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a campaign staffer for Obama in a memo mockingly referred to Clinton as a senator from Punjab, because of her close relationship with the Indian-American community.
This time around, Trump is likely to improve his performance among Indian-Americans for a number of reasons including the following: None of the Democrats running for president this year has the kind of relationship with India that Clinton had. The president has continued to reach out to the Indian-American community while in office. The joint appearance with Modi strengthens his ties with India.
Trump recognises that Modi remains hugely popular among Indian-Americans, especially within the influential Gujarati American community, which numbers more than 800,000. According to the 2010 Census, the Indian-American population in Florida was more than 128,000; in Pennsylvania, it was 103,000; and, in Michigan it was more than 77,000. Trump won Florida by about 113,000. His margin in Pennsylvania was a little over 44,000. Similarly, in Michigan. he won by fewer than 10,800 votes.’
It is very likely that Trump’s India visit moved the needle, and has consolidated his position with Indian-American voters there. And, they could help him secure the margin he needs to carry those states.
It is worth pointing out that, while in India, for once, Trump abandoned his mercurial personality, and acted like a gracious guest in deference to Modi. Known for expressing his opinion freely, solicited and unsolicited, he quite uncharacteristically chose not to comment on the controversial citizenship law. He also endorsed Modi’s record on religious freedom, which remains under scrutiny in the US.
In the end, the absence of a trade deal did not prevent the president from terming the visit “unforgettable” and “extraordinary.” Probably electoral calculations in the swing states in which Indian-American voters could make a meaningful difference were as much in the president’s mind as the adulation he received in Gujarat.
So, should Trump get re-elected in November with narrow margins in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, he will be thankful to Modi for helping him gain those decisive, extra few votes in the swing states. That just might be the most consequential outcome of Namaste Trump for him, and the ongoing relations between the two largest democracies in the world.