Down to business for Trump in India

09:04 | 25/02/2020

US President Donald Trump moves from sightseeing and speech-making to tough trade talks in India on Tuesday (Feb 25), as First Lady Melania visits a Delhi school to witness a "happiness class".

down to business for trump in india
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but behind the bonhomie and photo opportunities a comprehensive trade deal between their two nations looks remote. AFP/Money SHARMA

Despite sharing strategic concerns over China that have led to deepening defence ties, relations over trade have worsened under Trump's "America First" drive to reduce the US$25-billion US deficit with India.

Trump arrived on Monday and hailed India and its "tremendously successful" but "very tough" Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rowdy rally of 100,000 at the world's largest cricket stadium.

"The life of Prime Minister Modi underscores the limitless promise of this great nation. He started out by his father's side as a chai wallah - a tea-seller," Trump told the rapturous crowd.

Name-checking Bollywood films and Indian cricketers, Trump - with an eye on elections in November - paid tribute to the four-million-strong Indian-American diaspora as "truly spectacular people".

The razzmatazz of the "Namaste Trump" event was recompense for a "Howdy Modi" extravaganza in Houston last year when the two leaders held hands and Trump compared Modi to Elvis Presley.

"Mr Trump has given a tremendous speech and it's really touched our minds and hearts, and I am sure he has spoken with honesty and integrity," said Shrilak Shah, one of the spectators.

Trump and Melania - in an off-white jump suit and sash - then flew to the Taj Mahal, the Islamic mausoleum and monument to love, where they held hands.

"It's a timeless testament to the rich and diverse beauty of Indian culture! Thank you India," Trump gushed in the guest book.

ALMOND WRESTLE

But behind the bonhomie and photo opportunities, a comprehensive trade deal between the world's biggest economy and the country projected soon to be its most populous looks remote.

While small fry compared to his trade war with China, the Trump White House has imposed tariffs on Indian steel and aluminium and suspended duty-free access for certain goods.

Modi, who has his own "Make in India" mantra, has responded with higher tariffs on certain US goods like US$600 million worth of Californian almonds.

Trump has called India the "tariff king", and said before his visit that Asia's third-largest economy had been "hitting us very, very hard for many, many years".

Away from trade, Trump and Modi will reportedly sign US$3 billion worth of defence deals and discuss a US$1.9-billion missile defence shield.

This underscores both countries' concerns about growing Chinese clout. Last year the US and India signed a big military cooperation agreement.

India may also agree to buy five nuclear reactors, the fruit of a landmark but contentious atomic deal signed in the 2000s.

MINDFUL

India may also bristle if Trump repeats his offer of mediation in the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, or hits out at a new citizenship law that critics call anti-Muslim.

India has seen weeks of protests and clashes since the law passed in December, leaving more than 30 people dead including a policeman and at least three civilians killed after fresh violence erupted in Delhi on Sunday and Monday.

Against that backdrop, the First Lady was due to visit a school to watch a "happiness class" in which children meditate and focus on mindfulness to make them better pupils and citizens.

The curriculum was launched in 2018 by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and has piqued the interest of Melania Trump who has promoted a "Be Best" initiative for US kids.

"It is essentially a curriculum to keep children's minds focused on work and enable them to live harmoniously with family and society, while, importantly, developing a holistic outlook on life," said Manish Sisodia, Delhi's deputy chief minister.

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