What Trump's Cameo at Modi's Blockbuster Event Means Amid Tense Trade Ties, Kashmir Row


New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Houston “blockbuster” on September 22 will now have a “cameo”. US President Donald Trump will be appearing at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event to be attended by 50,000 Indian Americans in Texas at NRG stadium.

The announcement was made by the White House on Sunday evening. The statement said it is a great opportunity to “reaffirm the strategic partnership” between the US and India. But much of what could be playing on Trump’s mind is revealed in the phrase — “to discuss ways to deepen their energy and trade relationship”.

Trump has been very vocal about his displeasure on what he believes are unfair trade practices being employed by developing countries like India. He has used social media to target India over the tariffs and was seen insisting on discussing trade on priority when he met Modi in Osaka, Japan, on the sidelines of the G20 summit and later in Biarritz, France, on the sidelines of the G7 summit.

Since Trump’s trade tirade came out in the open, both sides have been engaging on the issue to iron out differences. A US Trade Representative (USTR) team, led by Assistant USTR Christopher Wilson, visited India in July. It was decided that Trade and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal will be travelling to Washington DC to engage with Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to not just remove irritants but strike a limited trade agreement. It is this that could be the single-biggest factor for Trump who has, as many analysts say, made the relationship transactional.

India has also agreed to buy more oil from the US. This is part of the effort to close the trade gap between the two countries. A report by US India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) has said bilateral trade will double from the present $143 billion to $238 billion in 2025. USISPF CEO Mukesh Aghi also told News18 that he believed the trade deficit will even out in the next five years. India, in fact, has also started importing oil from the US to close the trade deficit and all this could be used by Trump to showcase as his victory ahead of the 2020 Presidential race.

The Texas event will also provide a ready audience of 50,000 Indian Americans for Trump to send out a message that his administration should not be viewed as wholly anti-immigrant and that he recognises the contribution of the 3-million strong Indian-American community.

Over the last three years, many say there has been an upward trend in hate crimes against immigrants over statements made by Trump who seeks to portray them as a group that has taken away what rightfully belonged to Americans.

The kicking off of the process to scrap the H4 visa that allowed spouses of H1B visa holders to work and the proposed changes in the H1B visa regime itself have all contributed in creating a sense of uncertainty in the Indian community in America. Trump might want to address the same as he takes the stage in Houston.

Strategically too, the US is looking at doing a balancing act in the region. The July 22 joint press briefing in the White House with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan where Trump made the Kashmir mediation remark definitely didn't go down well with India. Both the White House and US State Department are aware of the sensitivities involved on any offer of third-party mediation.

Though the matter has been put to rest during the Biarritz bilateral between Modi and Trump, a picture that counters the Trump-Khan comfort will help the US send out a message that New Delhi is important for Washington DC. And with Pakistan's current importance having gone down several notches with Trump declaring the Afghan Peace Process “dead”, the US would certainly want to send a message of bonhomie with India.