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Modi’s US visit: A jadu ki jhappi with Trump can do the trick for India-US ties

The personal chemistry between Narendra Modi and Donald Trump will be closely watched and it might help give a push to bilateral ties

opinion Updated: Jun 23, 2017 11:55 IST
Donald Trump,Narendra Modi,Ronald Reagan
US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Agencies File Photos)

In June of 2013, the New Yorker carried a satirical piece, headlined- ‘Obama, Putin agree never to speak to each other again’. The inspiration for the article came from then US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s visibly frosty photo-op moment at the end of the G8 summit meet in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland .Obama with his lips tightly clenched, Putin’s gaze towards the floor, both looking sullen and disinterested in each other’s company, wanting out. It was not the first of the awkward photos between the two. Few leaders have shared as awkward a dynamic as Obama and Putin from their first meeting in 2009, yet being courteous of each other and business like in their official interactions. When world leaders of this stature meet, pictures do speak a thousand words.

Since Donald J Trump, a rumoured germaphobe, took oath of office as the 45th President of the United States, his chemistry with global leaders has overshadowed the past uncomfortable pictures. From an Angela Merkel with whom he refused to shake hands to Shinzo Abe whose hand Trump shook with extra vigour for a long time. And then that walk hand-in-hand with Britain’s Theresa May. Trump though is yet to hug or to be hugged by a leader.

When Trump, the president with awkward handshakes, meets the leader known for his bear hugs- Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the images will be fascinating.

Modi loves and understands the power of shutterbugs and images. He is as comfortable striking a personal rapport with newly-elected French President Emanuel Macron and hugging him minutes after their first meeting, as he is walking hand-in-hand with Putin. In a recent article highlighting the best of Modi’s hugs, The Independent wrote, “Narenda Modi is the Prime Minister of India. As a result he meets lots of powerful and important people. When he meets them, he likes to hug them, hold their hands and basically give them no personal space whatsoever. It’s pretty adorable. He sent Twitter into meltdown this week after photographs of his meeting with Putin looked like a wedding shoot.”

As Modi heads to Washington on an official visit for his debut meeting with Trump, the personal chemistry will be closely watched. It might help give a push to bureaucratic dealings on both sides.

Image management consultant Dilip Cherian believes body language will tell a large part of the story. “It is likely to be formal since when you are in the United States, you go by with what Trump prefers. But Modi doesn’t always go by bureaucratic protocol. He will look for an opportunity to crack the ice in a public forum.”

So far Trump has not hosted any world leader on a state visit. But during their visits early on into the new administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were hosted for dinner by Trump at his Palm Beach home at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, which is closed in summer. Currently Trump spends his weekends over at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

As Modi’s limousine drives up to the West Wing of the White House, and Trump receives his guest, it will present an opportunity to Modi to hug Trump if he so wishes in public display of warmth. As per protocol for the next photo-op moment, the two leaders would be seated at the Oval Office chatting with each other or taking some introductory questions before the official meeting begins.

Former ambassador and chief of protocol Pinak Chakravarty says, “Body language does matter to some extent. Given personalities of both, it should not be a problem. But unless you know a person, you do not hug. So warm clasping of hands is likely.”

The two leaders have chatted on the phone twice since Trump’s surprise election victory last November. The Indian side was able to establish early contact with top Cabinet faces in Trump’s administration but an invitation for the PM visit took a couple of months to come by. Trump, mired in controversies, dealing with probe into allegations of Russian interference in the US elections to possible obstruction of justice on the internal front, has hardly had India on his mind. Iran, North Korea, China and the situation in West Asia have kept his government busy on the external front. Meanwhile, from import duty on Harley Davidson, to climate change and H1B visas, he and his team have not spared kind words for India. But New Delhi believes that the momentum in India-US ties is stable and positive with meeting grounds for further close cooperation in areas such as security and counter-terrorism.

Steven Herman, senior journalist in the White House for Voice of America, says, “The optics are mostly about making Trump look good and keeping his campaign promises. In the visits of foreign leaders so far the crux has generally been about transactions, not necessarily geo-strategy.” Steven who tracks incoming visits closely in the new government and travelled with Trump on his debut overseas visit to Saudi Arabia, Europe and Israel, also thinks Trump will love it if Modi were to hug him.

While India-US ties today enjoy a bipartisan support in the Congress, the Modi-Trump meeting would be useful in creating the right atmospherics to flesh out the thorny issues in the bilateral relationship. The multi-billionaire real estate tycoon from New York and the tea seller from Gujarat who rose to highest political office in India have both proudly flaunted the ‘Business in their DNA’. Both challenged ruling establishments and won. When the two meet, the question will be if ‘Make American Great Again’ can go hand-in-hand with ‘Make In India’.

“Trump will expect some sort of commercial deals, whether it involves military or not. India might buy some military equipment, which Trump can display as creation of jobs like Qatar signed up for. There is a pressure on department of defence to make something look like a big announcement that might even be a re-packaged agreement,” says Herman.

A recent India-US roundtable report published by Ananta Aspen Centre and the CII makes the following recommendation: “The meeting of PM Modi with President Trump will be a clean-sheet meeting. India needs to bring to the table what it can do to contribute to the American economy.” The report further adds: “India must show more resolve and confidence in dealing with the US. It needs to get President Trump’s focus on India. It should not be diffident about pursuing its interests as a country nor should it be apologetic about its interests.”

“For Trump, it will be about how can he get jobs back to US. For Modi it will be about getting the visa regime sorted out that affects young voters and also looking at strategic and military support. But in their first meeting brownie points will be more important than match score cards,” says Cherian.

The brownie points will be facilitated by good personal bonhomie conveyed through visuals and photographs. The warm handshake between Chairman Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in February 1972 marked a historic shift in relation between communist China and capitalist America. After establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, as Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang made the first Chinese State visit to US in January 1984, images of him strolling with arms linked with President Ronald Reagan while it drizzled in the White House lawns, reflected the changed dynamics between the two countries. Three decades later it is unpredictability that defines Trump’s relationship with the world, including China, whom he does not accuse of being a currency manipulator anymore. And as Modi seeks to forge a friendship with the man infamous for his temperament and tweets, who knows maybe a jadu ki jhappi might just work magic.

Smita Sharma is a former journalist with India Today TV and Network 18

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 23, 2017 11:55 IST