President, or luxury towers? Either way, Trump is the rage in India

A Trump Towers development is prominently advertised at a Tribeca showroom in Gurgaon, on Feb 16, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

GURGAON, INDIA (NYTIMES) - When the Trump family jet lands in India this week, the family member taking a tour of the world's largest democracy - with a Secret Service detail in tow - won't be the president on a diplomatic mission. It will be his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, on a sales trip.

But Indians might be forgiven for not making much of the distinction.

The visit by the younger Trump, intended to help sell more than US$1 billion (S$1.31 billion) in luxury residential units being built by the Trumps and their local partners, has been promoted with newspaper advertisements that read: "Trump has arrived. Have you?"

The younger Trump's weeklong itinerary of cocktail parties, dinners and events with real estate brokers, business leaders and prospective buyers comes as President Donald Trump is working to strengthen ties between the two countries.

The president, who enjoys widespread popularity in India, was greeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a bear hug in Washington in June, and the two leaders have frequently discussed greater military cooperation and ramping up trade.

Trump has also taken a harder line toward Pakistan and China, two of India's rivals. Two weeks ago, Trump phoned Modi pledging "to strengthen security and economic cooperation" between India and the United States.

The overlap in India between father and son creates a spectacle with few parallels in business and diplomacy.

The younger Trump is scheduled to arrive Monday on a Boeing 757 nicknamed Trump Force One, because the president criss-crossed the United States on the plane during the campaign.

The Trump family earned as much as US$3 million in royalties in 2016 from ventures in India, according to the president's financial disclosure report. And Ivanka Trump made her own trip to India in November, in her capacity as a member of Trump administration, just as sales were about to start on some of the residential projects.

"The idea that the president's son would be going and shilling the president's brand at same time Donald Trump is president and is managing strategic and foreign relations with India - that is just bizarre," said Daniel S. Markey, who helped coordinate South Asia policy at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

There are no formal federal rules that prohibit Trump Jr from pursuing his business interests; he is a private citizen. And even though his father is still a beneficial owner of the family business, he is not subject to conflict of interest laws, as the president is exempt.

The White House, asked if Trump Jr's trip gave even an appearance of a conflict of interest, declined to comment on the matter.

India is the Trump Organisation's biggest international market, with four real estate projects underway.

The largest is here in Gurgaon, a fast-growing city outside New Delhi with a litany of Fortune 500 companies and a skyline filled with skyscrapers.

The Trump development encompasses two towers with a total of 254 "ultra luxury" units, according to the company, each selling for as much as US$1.5 million.

The luxury apartment buildings near the Trump development in Gurgaon have names like Palm Springs and Central Park, even as they overlook pothole-ridden highways.

The Trumps and their partners are offering buyers the opportunity to become "members of the Trump family," with the promise of exclusive amenities such as an infinity swimming pool, a billiards room and valet services.

The marketing materials, however, don't mention the president - his name and image, as well as that of his daughter Ivanka, who joined his administration, were removed from brochures, websites and billboards.

Still, confusion among Indians is evident.

"I had no idea that Trump built property around the world before this development was launched," said Hitesh Khanna, who is helping sell units at the Trump towers in Gurgaon through a local real estate brokerage firm. "I just thought he was president."

Khanna's boss, Rajiv Bansal, predicted the presidential connection would create enough buzz to entice buyers. Khanna was working out of a roadside tent near the construction site, with a tattered emerald green felt carpet at its entrance.

"Everyone in India knows who the US president is," Bansal said. "It's a status symbol. This is a big brand, the president of the United States' name will be on it."

Trump Jr, in an interview in New York last week, said he had spent nearly a decade "cultivating relationships in India," and the company was "now seeing the response of that effort."

To that point, the newspaper advertisements in India featured large photographs of him, arms crossed and staring into the camera.

The younger Trump said his itinerary did not include interactions with government officials in an intentional effort to steer clear of politics.

"We certainly won't get involved in that," he said, when asked if the company would seek concessions or incentives for the developments from Indian officials. "Not at all."

He is scheduled, nonetheless, to speak at the Global Business Summit in New Delhi, sponsored by a prominent Indian newspaper and a bank, who say the event will "showcase India's rise in world affairs." Trump Jr is billed as a keynote speaker, along with Modi.

Other stops on the 3,000-mile journey include Kolkata, where construction on a project with 137 luxury units is about to begin; Mumbai, where a 78-story Trump-branded tower with 400 residences is scheduled to be completed next year; and Pune, a city near Mumbai, where a fourth Trump-branded project has been built.

The Trumps' partner in Pune is Panchshil Realty, which was co-founded and is run by two brothers, Atul Chordia and Sagar Chordia, who are active in the opposition Nationalist Congress Party and who have a long-standing relationship with the head of the party, Sharad Pawar.

The Trump Organisation has not put up capital for its Indian projects, instead relying on Indian-based partners whose investors include Morgan Stanley and a Singapore investment fund. The Trump Organisation gets a cut of the sales, with payments increasing if the units sell above market rates.

According to business partners in India, many units are selling about 30 per cent per square foot higher than market rates.

The younger Trump's visit this week is expected to reinforce that trend, they said, even as many other luxury housing towers have hundreds of empty units. In addition to an oversupply, a recent Indian government crackdown on the black money economy has hurt sales at competing developments, but the Trump name remains a draw.

"The brand is a lead generator," said Kalpesh Mehta, who runs the Mumbai-based development company Tribeca, which serves as the lead representative for the Trump brand in India. "It is what is making people pay attention and look at it deeply."

Buyers who put down a deposit this week, according to an advertisement wrapped around the front page of the Hindustan Times this weekend, are promised a seat at a dinner with the younger Trump.

Madhav Das Nalapat, an academic and prominent newspaper columnist who is close to senior members of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said the excitement around the Trump towers was an extension of the country's complicated caste system and the Trump administration's tough stance on its rival Pakistan.

"India is a hierarchical society," he said. "Trump is now leading the No. 1 country in the world, so his brand has higher value. That counts. It's not who he is. It's what he is."

Under voluntary ethics rules governing the Trump Organisation's activities during the Trump presidency, international projects in the works before the 2016 election - which include all of the India properties now being marketed - can proceed as planned.

The president handed over daily operations of the company to his sons Donald Jr and Eric, but he remains the owner.

Still, some ethics lawyers say the mere presence of the Trump Organization in India is problematic.

"The question isn't just whether Don Trump Jr is making phone calls to say, 'Give me a favour,'" said Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who is part of a lawsuit claiming that the president's business ties violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

"It is by having these business entanglements, does it create incentives and opportunities for people in the Indian government to try to use the business relations to impact American policy."

The Trump family's financial interests in India could also call into question the president's objectivity in dealing with the country, Teachout said.

"It looks bad, it smells bad, and it leaves an uncertainty in the faith of the American public about the diplomatic choices that the Trump administration makes regarding India," she said.

Arun Kumar Singh, a former ambassador to the United States from India, and Markey, the former State Department official who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said they had not seen changes in US policy toward India that they would attribute to the president's business interests.

The biggest difference from the Obama administration, they said, was the apparent warmth between the president and Modi.

"I have always had a deep admiration for your country and for its people, and a profound appreciation for your rich culture, heritage and traditions," Trump said in June during a state visit by Modi, one of many such words of praise for India he has offered in the last year.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.