The Political Fix: What will Donald Trump’s big visit to India actually achieve?

A weekly newsletter on Indian policy and politics from Scroll.in.

Welcome to the Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a weekly newsletter on Indian politics and policy. To get it in your inbox every Monday, sign up here.

REQUEST: We’re trying out a slightly different format this week, with more analysis and fewer links. But we want to know if that’s what you prefer: Please fill out this short form to tell us what you think.

If you want journalism with spine not spin, consider supporting us either by subscribing to Scroll+ or contributing to the Scroll.in Reporting Fund.


The Political Fix: What will Donald Trump’s big visit to India actually achieve?

The Big Story: Orange meets saffron

US President Donald Trump will be in India on Monday and Tuesday. You can expect Indian TV news to go bonkers, offering breathless coverage of every single moment from the joint appearance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a stadium in Ahmedabad (where Trump said he was promised a turnout of 10 million people!) to the Trumps visiting the Taj in Agra.

Visits of American presidents are always a big deal in India – not least because Trump will only be the seventh (and fourth in a row) to make his way to the country. That continuity is a sign that Indo-US relations have stabilised over the past two decades, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and India opening up its economy.

The added appeal is, of course, that this is Trump: a former TV star who never fails to entertain, the US president also apparently has more support in India than he does in many other countries, according to Pew Research.

He has also already embraced the bombastic memes.

On Monday, Trump will do an Indian re-make of the Howdy Modi event from last year (see our coverage, including Nithya Subramanian’s illustration of Cowboy Modi, here) as the two address a gathering of tens of thousands in Gujarat and visit Mohandas Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram.

The Trumps then go on to the Taj Mahal, and will meet with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath before making their way to Delhi. On Tuesday, Trump and Modi will spend the day in formal talks and official receptions.

There is plenty on the table for the two leaders to discuss, from developments in the region – Trump may sign a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan next week – to questions about the bilateral relationship. It is likely that the defence partnership will continue to grow, with a deal expected for India to buy 24 naval helicopters. On trade, however, there is no good news, with both administrations making it clear that they do not expect a major agreement from this visit.

I wrote about this last week, pointing to fears that the trade squabbles might affect the rest of the relationship:

“From one angle, the willingness of the two leaders to carry out a visit like this despite the lack of movement on trade is a positive thing: It suggests that the US-India relationship is deep enough that it not dependent on a trade breakthrough, allowing the two governments to continue forging a strategic partnership even if the two economies do not integrate further...

With Trump there is always the fear that the US president is more focused on transactional wins – like winning economic concessions from allies – and is willing to endanger other aspects of the relationship to get there. Hosting an event like the big roadshow and stadium visit is part of the effort to keep Trump happy.” 

Trump’s team has indicated that he may venture into territory that makes Indians uncomfortable: bringing up the question of religious freedoms and recent policy decisions by Modi. And the US President has offered several times to be more involved in the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, though New Delhi keeps insisting that it is a bilateral concern.

Anything truly discomfiting would, however, be a surprise. For all the drama expected from the big rally in Ahmedabad, it is quite possible that the trip will not actually be all that eventful outside of the political optics. For a country that not longer ago seemed in turmoil over a closer embrace with America, the ordinariness of this visit – lots of noise, not a big risk and probably no big signings – counts as a positive sign, even if the lack of further progress is disappointing.

Recommendation Corner

Malavika Raghavan (@teninthemorning) heads the Future of Finance Initiative at Dvara Research, where she focuses on all the complex elements that go into the digitisation of finance. See this recent thread of her team’s work on India’s Personal Data Protection Bill.

Raghavan has a collection of recommendations from all over this week:

Writing 

*Naresh Fernandes’ Urban Fabric (p.73  - 83 of Bombay, Meri Jaan) stands out as an incredible story of the mill workers’ attempt at resistance as Mumbai went though deindustrialisation in the early 90s. It managed to weave this chapter deftly into the longer story of trade & textile of the city, and more poignantly, very human struggles that result from the “development” agenda of a city constantly seeking out its own reinvention all played out in on the geography of Girangaon. As a Mumbaikar witnessing the Aarey brouhaha at close quarters, and the effects of a change in Government on it – it really struck a chord.

*The hum of black money and blacker deeds melded into our power and politics also took me back to Josy Joseph’s A Feast of Vultures, especially Chapter 10: A House for Mr. Ambani. Once again the geography of the site of Antilia (at Altamount Road which since 1918 has housed the Chairman of the Bombay Port Trust, a kind of antithesis of Girangaon) is striking. It has borne witness to “emblematic [shifts] of Mumbai’s transition from a British port city of textile mills...to the financial capital of the country” – and how this transition is often bathed in corruption and sorrow. 

*With the Aam Aadmi Party’s win in Delhi and the continuing largely-non violent protests across the country, I’ve also been dipping into an all time favourite refuge: Independence and After (1949), a collection of Nehru’s speeches from Sept 1946 to May 1949 published by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (price then Rs. 7/8 :-D you have to see the book sometime). In five pages each, he lays out simply “The Dangerous Alliance of Religion and Politics” (pp. 47 - 51) and in “The Universities have much to Teach” (pp. 115 - 119”) he speaks with simple and deep messages & questions that are frightfully relevant today. 

Podcasts & Videos

*I find MoneyControl’s Market Podcast always a quick and easy listen to get a view on the biggest issues in the markets, often directly related to whats going on in politics. Friday’s podcast briefly touched on why Airtel’s share rose despite the aggravated gross revenue setback for Telcos in the Supreme Court (spoiler: imminent duopoly alert!). 

*Samdish Bhatia is on FIRRRE with his latest instalment from ScoopWhoop Unscripted on the Delhi Elections 2020

Addendum
*This may be too much for public consumption. Here is a 10 minute, funny but slightly taking it too far interview on the India Explained podcast :-D a parody about speaking to a BJP spokesperson in the Delhi Elections. 


Have recommendations for an article, book, podcast or academic paper that deals with Indian politics or policy? Send it to rohan@scroll.in. Previous recommendations from the Political Fix are collected here.


Prashant Ki-shor

This week brings even more of a focus on India’s top political strategist than usual. Kishore has always been good at getting his name in the newspaper, often annoying actual politicians in the process. Ever since he broke away from the Janata Dal (United) over its stand on the Citizenship Act amendments, Kishore has been making moves.

He has the ear of five Indian chief ministers, which could become six if you include the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu where elections are due next year. And he now has his own organisation in Bihar, though at the moment he claims the aim is simply to make people aware of how the state needs to progress. Profiles in the Economic Times (including an interview) and the Indian Express offer a useful look at where things stand for Kishore who, despite much carping against his image, has a proven track record.

Maharashtra mess

The unwieldy coalition in Maharashtra, where former Bharatiya Janata Party ally, the Shiv Sena, signed up with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party is currently facing some turbulence. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, of the Shiv Sena, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said soon after that there was nothing wrong with the Citizenship Act amendments. He also said the National Population Register is fine, though the state would look closely at which questions make it to the list.

The problem is that its allies, the Congress and the NCP, consider the Citizenship Act amendments a part of a package with the NPR and the National Register of Citizens, the final goal of which is to harass Indian Muslims. This has led to some friction within the state government though few expect it to be serious enough to threaten the coalition.

‘Pakistan Zindabad’?

An 18-year-old has been charged with sedition for shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” (long live Pakistan) at an anti-Citizenship Act rally last week. In a Facebook post earlier, Amulya Leona had written that humanity should be placed above nation states and their enmities, so it shouldn’t be wrong to shout “long live Pakistan.” The state clearly disagrees, though as Sruthisagar Yamunan writes, this simply does not qualify as sedition – though that doesn’t stop authorities from invoking it.

The slogan did however bring up a debate about tactics, separate from the state’s deeply problematic use of sedition charges. Leona was speaking at a rally organised by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, a political party that focuses on Muslim support. The loyalties of Indian Muslims have always been questioned by the majority and the state, ever since Partition. Does shouting out “long live Pakistan”, no matter the Imagine-no-borders sentiment, at a Muslim rally actually make sense?

Poll Toon

Scroll.in Ground Report

Shoaib Daniyal has an insightful report on a sit-in protest taking place against the Citizenship Act amendments in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. While Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh has become the model of Muslim women-led protests, the risk to individual life from the state is much higher in Uttar Pradesh, where the state has unleashed violence against protesters.

In Kanpur, the police had tried to receive demands from the women, send Muslim clerics ordering them to stop and even attacked them with lathis (batons). But the protest is still there. As Daniyal explains, having listened to a befuddled Muslim cleric wondering why no one is listening to him, these protests aren’t just taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party – they’re also changing the way politics works.

“A vexed Abdul Quddus Hadi, the Sheher Qazi, is clear that he shares the aims of the protesters, but not their means. ‘Earlier people would listen to the qazis,’ he complained to Scroll.in. ‘But now people are calling us dalals and mukhbirs [agents and informers of the administration]. I cannot understand why they aren’t listening to us.’

Quddus’ concern about this own irrelevance is well placed. Not only him, the truculence of the protesters in Mohammed Ali Park has swept away the entire local leadership of the Chamaganj area. Earlier links with which the police would use to control activity seem, at the very least, dormant if not broken.”

Read the whole piece here and contribute to the Scroll.in Reporting Fund if you would like to help our reporters go further and dig deeper.

Linking out:

  • Three important papers on India, covering everything from demonetisation to why the Indian state both fails and succeeds. The Journal of Economic Perspectives carries these three, featuring authors such as Devesh Kapur and Arvind Subramanian.

  • “In ancient India, dominant caste people would tag us by tying chains to our legs... Now we are asked to wear smartwatches to track our movements.”Read this report by Rachna Khaira in HuffPost about labour surveillance.

  • Is the current Hindu nationalist moment a revolt of the upper castes against a more egalitarian democracy?Jean Drèze argues that it is, in the inaugural issue of CASTE: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, also published on the India Forum.

  • How did we get to this moment in Indian politics? Samanth Subramanian in the Guardian has a long piece putting the rise of Hindu nationalism in context.

  • How will the Indian government sell a stake in LIC if it doesn’t actually own any? V Sridhar in Frontline explains the complicated structuring of the Life Insurance Corporation.

Can’t make this up

This week had India discover some of the world’s largest gold reserves, prompting all sorts of government triumphalism, only for the gold to be un-discovered. And then the Bharatiya Janata Party government insisted that the National Museum pretend that the Indus Valley Civilisation was vegetarian.

But the story you really can’t make up involves the patriotic fervour that has spread across the country. Someone broke into a house Kerala only to discover it was the home of a retired colonel. Which led to this note, written on the wall: “I realised it was the house of an army officer only after seeing the cap. If I had known it earlier, I would never have broken into the house. Officer, please forgive me.”

Of course, the thief took some cash anyway and also some alcohol. But the note went on: “I violated the seventh commandment in the Bible. But then you will be there before me in the journey to hell.”


Want more links? Wish the newsletter was shorter? Want a small link round-up on Fridays? Tell us what you think of the Political Fix by filling in this feedback form. Send any other questions or memes to rohan@scroll.in

And if you like the newsletter, please share it!