India’s prime minister Narendra Modi to meet Donald Trump in 'no-frills' visit

Narendra Modi visiting France's President Emmanuel Macron on June 3, 2017, in Paris.
Narendra Modi visiting France's President Emmanuel Macron on June 3, 2017, in Paris.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet for the first time with President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday (June 26), part of a two-day “no-frills” visit to the capital that will include little of the pomp of the prime minister’s earlier trips during the Obama administration.

The White House said the two leaders will seek to advance “common priorities” for the US-India partnership, a list that includes fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth and expanding security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Officials on both sides have tried to set low expectations for the meeting, casting it as a way for the two men – who have previously spoken by phone – to get to know each other.

Indian diplomats in Washington emphasised the commonalities between the leaders, citing Modi’s business sensibilities and populist appeal. White House aides focused on something even more Trumpian.

“They are the world’s most-followed political leaders on social media,” a senior administration official told reporters at a background briefing on the meeting, before quickly adding: “President Trump is slightly ahead of Modi.”

As of Saturday morning, Trump had 32.7 million Twitter followers, with Modi clocking in at 31 million.

“That shows the kind of leaders they are: Both are innovators; both are business executives,” said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the visit. “I think they’ll find a lot of common ground.”

Modi’s goal is to create a special bond with Trump, the prime minister’s aides said.“Without chemistry, there is no physics,” one Indian official said.

New Delhi has been alarmed by Trump’s courting of Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he hosted at his Mar-a-Lago winter estate in April, officials in India said. White House officials dismissed suggestions that the administration has ignored India.

Modi’s visit will lack the type of public display of affection that marked his visit to the Obama White House in 2014, when he and then-President Obama visited the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial together.

But Trump aides said that Modi, after meetings with the president, will also be treated to a cocktail reception and a working dinner at the White House, the first for a foreign leader under Trump.

“The White House is every interested in making this a special visit,” the senior administration official said. “We’re seeking to roll out the red carpet.”

That official said much of the focus of the bilateral meetings would be on counterterrorism and security, noting that the administration hopes to elevate India as “a major defence partner on par with our closest allies and partners.”

The United States is India’s second-largest defense supplier, and a US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) deal for the United States to sell 22 unarmed drones to India to protect its vast coastline appears set for approval by the Trump administration.

Modi, 66, has made his reputation as a strong – some say authoritarian – leader who has made his country’s economic progress the hallmark of his administration, trotting the globe to drum up foreign investment. In that, he’s likely to find common ground with Trump.

Unlike the president, however, Modi enjoys widespread popularity at home, polls show.

Trump has been previously bullish on the potential of India’s fast-growing economy, viewing it as a good place for foreign investment. The Trump Organisation has licensed the president’s name to five real estate projects in India, and Trump visited Mumbai on business before becoming president.

“They could either hit if off amazingly or fall out completely. They’re both strong personalities, and both of them have a rather exalted opinion of themselves,” said Rajiv Kumar, an economist and author of the book Modi And His Challenges.

Both are fairly focused on dealmaking, Kumar said, Trump as a businessman and Modi from his time as chief minister of the business-friendly Indian state of Gujarat.

Yet Trump has been unpredictable with New Delhi so far. He made a point to call Modi in March after his Bharatiya Janata Party garnered a key win in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, seen as a likely bellwether for Modi’s reelection hopes in 2019.

But the president also was highly critical – some argued unfairly so – of India and China during his speech when he announced this month that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris accord on climate change.

Trump wrongly asserted that India made its participation in the agreement contingent on “billions and billions and billions” of foreign aid.

The country’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, later dismissed Trump’s remarks as “completely not true,” and Modi has made it clear during recent meetings with European leaders that the country will stay the course on its commitment with or without the United States.

Already, India has pulled back from building coal-fired power plants and is expected to meet its goal of having 40 per cent of its energy from renewables well before the target of 2030.

On the economy, India and US bilateral trade has nearly doubled in the past decade, to US$115 billion, but the trade deficit of US$30 billion remains a matter of concern.

Trump has also ordered a review of the highly skilled H-1B worker visa program, a key priority of for the Indian IT industry, with its tech workers getting an estimated 70 per cent of those coveted visas in 2015, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Homeland Security.

The senior Trump administration official emphasised that no changes have been made to that visa programme so far and declined to speculate on the outcome of the review.

“During the campaign, he very much was in touch with the Indian American community,” the official said of the president.

“He has expressed very positive feelings and said if he won, India would find a true friend in the White House. He’s not new to India.”