John Elliott: Trump and Modi Bond Over Fear of Muslims

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi had a remarkably successful afternoon and evening at the White House yesterday, bonding and even hugging in an easy way, and avoiding potential clashes on issues such as visas and climate change that might have disturbed the harmony of the Indian prime minister's first meeting with the US president.

Together they furthered the cause of partnership between the two countries.

Trump, who is notoriously unpredictable did nothing to disturb the harmony of the carefully choreographed visit, which included a pre-dinner reception hosted by Melania Trump, in addition to meetings between Modi and other senior government officials, American businessmen, and Indians living in the US..

Modi, who got on well with Barack Obama, thanked the Trumps for the "immense warmth" of his welcome, and invited their daughter Ivanka to lead the US delegation to a Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India later this year.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as he leaves the White House after a visit, in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2017. Carlos Barria

The two men clearly have a lot in common as extrovert political populists and leaders who have been elected against passionate opposition from their countries' elites. They are also strong nationalists who want to protect what they regard as their countries' heritage and culture.

Shared aversion

This has led them to share an aversion for Muslims, which is significant, even though it was not mentioned yesterday as one of the subjects they formally discussed.

Trump regards Muslims as potential terrorists and yesterday, coincidentally, received the US Supreme Court's conditional approval for part of his controversial ban on people from six Muslim countries entering America.

Modi leads a committed Hindu nationalist government whose Bharatiya Janata Party is intensely anti-Muslim to a degree that clashes with India's secular traditions of embracing all religions.

Their common view has demonstrated in the past week when they both broke US and Indian government traditions by avoiding Iftar dinners on the Muslim day of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Both men dutifully issued greetings to Muslims to mark the end of the month, but avoided publicly social events. Trump failed to host the traditional White House Iftar dinner that was first held in 1805 and has been an annual event since 1995.

Modi, along with all his cabinet, did not attend the president of India's annual Iftar reception on June 24, even though dinner places had been prepared for some of them. A cabinet committee on political affairs was arranged at the same time as the dinner, which for decades has been seen as a prestigious event on Delhi's political calendar embracing all political parties and religions.

Such moves surely alienate Muslim opinion, not only in the US and India but internationally. Along with Pakistan, India has the world's second largest Muslim population (after Indonesia) of around 190m.

The nearest Trump and Modi came to discussing their shared view yesterday was on terrorism, especially the role of Pakistan. Their joint statement called on Pakistan "to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries", and "to expeditiously bring to justice" those responsible for terrorist attacks in India, including one in Mumbai in 2008.

That is a stronger statement on Pakistan than the US has issued in the past. It was accompanied by the State Department yesterday acceding to an Indian request to name Pakistan-based Syed Salahudeen, an extremist Islamic preacher, as a "global terrorist". Both these moves increase pressure on Pakistan, though the US is careful not to go too far in alienating the country, which is drawing closer to China.

Concerns about China were also discussed, though it was not named. It was however indirectly criticised with the statement reiterating "the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce", which China is not doing in the South China Sea and the region. It also called for territorial and maritime disputes to be resolved "in accordance with international law".

Chinese troops were yesterday accused by India of crossing the border in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim and stopping Indian pilgrims crossing the border to a shrine. This may, or may not, be a coincidence at the time of Modi's visit, which has been criticised in the Chinese media today.

The mood of the talks was summed up by S. Jaishankar, India's foreign secretary, as "very warm, very open, very cordial", with a "great deal of ease" between the two men who were "comfortable with each other". Previously India's ambassador in Washington, Jaishankar said it was "one of the most productive visits I have seen to the US"

He used the word partners at least four times in an on-the-record media briefing, and the joint statement was titled "Prosperity through Partnership". India had sent the message that it was a "reliable dependable partner" on counter-terrorism initiatives, and the two countries saw each other as "major defence partners".

On economic and business matters, there was a "high level of comfort" between the two countries, which meant that they were "natural partners" for each in several areas including civil aviation and natural gas. They should, Jaishankar said, be seen as "preferred partners when it comes to economic issues".

This showed that Trump is following and extending the policy of Barack Obama, which he is not doing in other areas of American policy. Obama talked during a visit to Delhi in 2015 about the many ways in which the two countries could move on from being "natural partners" to "best partners".

It is now nearly 20 years since President Bill Clinton started moves to draw closer to India after its nuclear tests in 1998. The relationship has changed dramatically since then, but there are many in New Delhi who do not trust Washington, and there are many US policy experts who regard India as a tiresome non-performer.

It took 14 years for India to agree to a logistic deal that was signed last year to enable the two countries to use each other's defence bases for servicing and repairs on a case by case basis. Negotiations on other agreements are still pending, but India is increasingly accepting the US as a defence equipment supplier, most recently for a surveillance drones contract mentioned during yesterday's talks.

It remains to be seen how far yesterday's bonhomie turns into action, and how the two countries tackle their differences over issues like US visas for Indian high technology workers (which were discussed, but not in detail), and India's support for the Paris accord on climate change that Trump has abandoned, criticising benefits that India receives.

The main outcome of the visit however is that the leaders of two of the world's largest countries, both democracies, have found they can get on with each other and have commons bonds. That should help them navigate through the future unknowns of Chinese aggression and other inevitable international crises – and Trump tweets.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality.