fter Donald Trump left India Tuesday after a two-day official trip, what do we make of the visit? An apt question to ponder over after all that razzmatazz created around the visit. On the economic front the visit did not yield much. Nor was it expected. A 3 billion-dollar defence deal was only eyewash, for; it was already in the bag and did not necessarily justify an 8,000-mile flight by the US President. A handful of MoUs were signed but they hardly required presidential or prime ministerial push. There were media reports ahead of President Trump’s visit on how the two sides were struggling to reach consensus on some big-ticket trade agreements. There were even doubts on whether the visit would at all materialise given lack of agreement between both the countries on trade deal. Given this backdrop, we are not surprised that the Modi-Trump meetings delivered little on the economic front. Some media reports have rightly portrayed the visit as high on chemistry, but poor on maths. Considering the sharp business acumen and interests of both the leaders, it was expected that there will be some breakthroughs in trade talks. But it was not to be. President Trump said a big trade deal was in the offing and may be expected towards the end of this year. There are many things that both the US and India want from each other. India wanted the US to relax some of the trade barriers and not end the preferential treatment it is entitled in the US. The US puts pressure on India to substantially lower domestic tariffs so that it could import more items to India. There are also fresh points of friction related to digital payments, data localisation and e-commerce. A priority moving forward could be finalising a trade agreement that would bring an end to the application of further tariffs and open-ended commercial disputes.
The visit was long on optics and personal chemistry between the two leaders but short on actual results. In a way, it was expected. Trump is headed for a re-election and he needs the support of the large diaspora of Indians who are increasingly rich and influential. A majority of Indians in the US support Democrats. Modi on his own wanted to redeem his pledge to Trump during his Howdy Modi tour to Houston last year that he would organsie a much bigger congregation for Trump when the latter visits India. Although the congregation at Motera in Gujarat turned out to be much smaller than Modi had promised Trump, Trump appeared mighty pleased with the wall-to wall gathering in Ahmedabad. This was one leadership summit where Trump said all the right things, piling on praise on Modi and his leadership scrupulously avoiding making any remarks which might have discomfited his host, whether on Kashmir or the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Was there no substance to the visit then? There was. Trump showed remarkable restraint in not rebuking Indian side on trade issues which he is known for. His grouses on high tariffs in India were relatively subdued. The attitude was forward-looking and optimistic to a fault. The two sides were under tremendous pressure to sew up a first phase of agreement. But the differences were too wide to be bridged. The economic pillars of the relationship are shaky now but the visit has left a signature of relief on this relationship. More importantly, with the chemistry between the two leaders at a new high and their strong political backing, negotiators must move towards the much anticipated yet elusive trade deal.