By Steve Herman
U.S. President Donald Trump departs for India Sunday on a 36-hour trip, having acknowledged he will not be returning home with an anticipated big trade deal.
“I’m really saving the big deal for later on,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’ll be done before the election, but we’ll have a very big deal with India.”
There is mutual agreement on dozens of elements for the pact, but several contentious sectors are unresolved, including medical devices, according to sources close to the talks.
“Whether or not there will be an announcement on a trade package is, really, wholly dependent upon what the Indians are prepared to do,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday. “That said, we have a number of significant commercial deals, which are of great significance that we’re very pleased to announce in a number of key sectors.”
First trip to India
On his maiden voyage to the South Asian country, Trump is likely to announce a sale worth several billion dollars for military helicopters and, possibly, a missile defense system, amid rising mutual concern about China’s military expansion, which has prompted closer defense cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.
Indian officials are said to be perplexed that U.S. officials halted trade negotiations just before the Trump visit, expressing a view that Washington pursued brinksmanship that failed in the face of a more patient India, which is the world’s fifth biggest economy.
“There’s no great hurry here” to finalize a trade pact, retired veteran senior Indian diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan in India told VOA.
“I was personally a little bit surprised that the two sides weren’t able to get this deal done,” Jeff Smith, South Asia research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said.
Promised a crowd
The president, at a political rally Thursday, said the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told him he will be greeted by up to 10 million people when Air Force One lands in Modi’s home state of Gujarat Monday morning.
“That’s simply not possible. Even 1 million is difficult,” said Sreenivasan, who added that among Indians, “nobody will bother about numbers” and even if Trump claims he was hailed by millions, “that’s not likely to be an issue of contention.”
Indian officials, quoted by local media, predict a more modest crowd of about 100,000 to 150,000 (plus 12,000 police officers) when the president arrives for the dedication of the world’s largest cricket stadium — part of an event billed as “Namaste, Trump.”
Pre-trip beautification effort
A small army of workers has been deployed ahead of Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad to build a 400-meter-long wall along the motorcade route to block the view of where poor people live. The hurried beautification project also includes the placement of about 150,000 flowerpots.
“It will be similar to the landmark ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event hosted by the Indian American community in honor of Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Houston in September 2019, in which President Trump participated,” India’s foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, told reporters in the capital, New Delhi.
“The visit will primarily be one for pomp, show and symbolism,” said Aparna Pande, the director of the Hudson Institute Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia. “It matters to two nationalist populist leaders that they can demonstrate to their domestic audience and to the world that they have a reliable partner and ally.”
After the stadium event in Ahmedabad and before heading to New Delhi, the president and first lady Melania Trump will make a quick visit to the country’s most famous tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal.
Indian media reported Agra will be on lockdown for the visit, although there is concern about controlling the menacing monkeys roaming the grounds of the 17th century Mughal marble mausoleum.
“The forest department has been requested to ensure that the monkeys stay away from the Taj during Donald Trump’s visit,” Archaeological Survey of India Superintending Archaeologist Vasant Kumar Swarnkar was quoted telling India Today.
In India’s capital, bilateral talks are to focus on contemporary concerns.
Indian officials could raise Trump’s hard line on immigration.
“They view the immigration issue, whether it is offering visas to students or the H-1B highly skilled visas or the green card issue, as becoming worse in the last four years,” Pande told VOA.
It is uncertain whether Trump will discuss the issue of Kashmir.
Six months after Modi ended Kashmir’s special status under India’s constitution, local politicians there remain detained and internet service is restricted.
Trump “is not always very thoughtful when he talks about such issues, particularly Kashmir. So that’s a bee in his bonnet and it’s going to come up in some form,” Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, predicted.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for Trump to help resolve the dispute between the two nuclear-armed neighbors over Kashmir, something the U.S. president has previously indicated he is willing to do. But Modi has strongly rebuffed offers from third parties to mediate.
Indian officials are apprehensive about Trump commenting on the Kashmir issue during the visit.
“He might say that ‘I’m a great dealmaker and I can resolve Kashmir.’ But let’s hope he doesn’t,” Pande, of the Hudson Institute, said.
Controversial citizenship bill
Some members of the U.S. Congress are also expressing concern about Modi’s controversial move to give Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighboring countries — unless they are Muslims.
Trump, during the India visit, will raise such matters, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is “extremely important to this administration,” according to a senior administration official.
“Attempts to lecture, coerce, punish, intervene in India’s affairs have traditionally not been particularly effective,” Smith, of the Heritage Foundation, said.
Trump will be the fourth consecutive U.S. president to travel to India, continuing the shift in allegiance by Washington to Delhi from India’s archrival and neighbor.
Khan, after a recent meeting with Trump during the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, said the U.S. president also promised to visit Pakistan soon.
If “there is no complementary visit to Pakistan or no side agreement on some other way to assuage concerns there, then I think Pakistan will take it as a slight,” said Richard Russow, senior adviser for U.S.-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
VOA White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.