All eyes are on US president Donald Trump's maiden visit to India, scheduled from February 24. His visit takes place under the shadow of acrimony over trade deals and tarrifs between the two countries. Trump, accompanied by wife Melania Trump and a high-level delegation, will arrive in Ahmedabad for a little less than 36-hour-long trip. From Ahmedabad, he will travel to Agra before arriving at the national capital for the main leg of the visit.
In Ahmedabad, President Trump will address the 'Namaste Trump' event jointly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the newly built Motera cricket stadium. "It will be similar to the landmark 'Howdy, Modi!' event hosted by the Indian-American community in honour of Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Houston in September 2019, in which President Trump participated," Foreign Secretary Harshvardhan Shringla said, briefing reporters on the visit.
He said the route of Trump's travel to the stadium is expected to have tens of thousands of citizens as well as artistes showcasing the performing arts from different states and Union Territories. Shringla said as many as 28 stages representing the various parts of the country are being set up along the route, in what is being called the India Road Show. "The route will also feature decorations depicting different events in the life of Gandhiji, whose association with the city is so well-known," said the foreign secretary.
He said Trump and Modi would address a full-capacity audience, which would include people from different parts of India and all walks of life, reflecting the diversity of the country.
After the event, the US President and the First Lady will visit Agra, where they will spend about an hour at the Taj Mahal before the sunset, according to Shringla. President Trump would then depart for Delhi. On the morning of February 25, Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump will be accorded a ceremonial welcome at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. From there, they will go to Rajghat to pay homage at the 'samadhi' of Mahatma Gandhi. It will be followed by restricted and delegation-level talks between Trump and Modi at Hyderabad House.
Melania Trump is likely to visit a Delhi government school and interact with students the same day. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia are likely to give a tour of the school to the US first lady and brief her about the "happiness curriculum" introduced by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, the sources said.
"The talks will be comprehensive and cover issues relating to our strategic partnership in areas of defence, security, counter-terrorism, as well as trade, energy, people-to-people exchanges and other bilateral matters," Shringla said. He said the two leaders would exchange views on regional and global issues of shared interests. Prime Minister Modi will host a lunch for the US president following the talks. In the afternoon, Trump is expected to attend certain private events at the US Embassy, including a private roundtable with industry representatives. In the evening, the US president will meet with President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. "A banquet will be hosted by Kovind. President Trump will depart from India later that evening," said Shringla.
Niggling trade issues
Ahead of his India visit, Trump said that India has not treated his country "very well" on the trade front and indicated that a "very big" bilateral deal with New Delhi may not be signed before the American presidential election in November. Asked about Trump's comments, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said it is important to understand the context in which the remarks were made.
As hopes for sealing the much-anticipated trade deal during Trump's visit to India next week faded away, India said it does not want to create "artificial deadlines". "It is important to understand the context under which these remarks were made. Please understand that the US is India's largest trading partner in goods and services. Also do keep in mind that there has been a consistent growth in trade between the two countries over the last few years," Kumar said at a media briefing.
Trump had earlier dubbed India the 'tariff king', having raised the issue of 'high duties' on products such as almond and walnut, and products such as the Harley Davidson bikes. There is also a clear trade deficit. India's exports to the US in 2017-18 stood at $47.9 billion, while imports were at $26.7 billion. The trade balance is in favour of India. In February 2018, India had slashed the customs duty on imported motorcycles like Harley Davidson to 50 per cent after Trump called it "unfair" and threatened to increase the tariff on import of Indian bikes to the US.
America, in March 2018, imposed 25 per cent tariff on steel and a 10 per cent import duty on aluminium products; India dragged the US to the World Trade Organisation's dispute settlement mechanism over the imposition of import duties on steel and aluminium. Many US companies like Google, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon have raised concerns over the issue of data localisation and its impact on their operational costs.
In June 2019, Trump had terminated India's designation as a beneficiary developing nation under the key GSP trade programme after determining that New Delhi has not assured the US that it will provide "equitable and reasonable access" to its markets. This was a blow to India. Under the GSP programme, nearly 2,000 products including auto components and textile materials can enter the US duty-free if the beneficiary developing countries meet the eligibility criteria established by Congress. India was the largest beneficiary of the programme in 2017 with $5.7 billion in imports to the US given duty-free status and Turkey the fifth largest with $1.7 billion in covered imports, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Kumar said the US is India's sixth largest source of crude oil imports, and that it is purchasing a large number of civilian aircraft. "We do feel that some of these steps bridge the trade deficit that exists at this point in time." On the proposed trade deal, Kumar said India hoped to reach an understanding with an outcome that strikes the right balance for both sides."
What pacts can be expected?
India and the US are eyeing around five pacts providing for cooperation in areas of intellectual property rights, trade facilitation and homeland security. Boosting counter-terror cooperation, deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, augmenting defence and trade ties and India's concerns over H1B visas are expected to figure in talks between Trump and Modi, External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said.
"India is eagerly awaiting President Trump's visit and it will strengthen the bilateral global strategic ties," he said. "Overall, our global strategic partnership will be further strengthened," Kumar said, when asked about the expected outcome of the visit. He said around five MoUs are under discussion for finalisation during the US president's visit. The pacts will cover intellectual property rights, trade facilitation and cooperation in areas of Homeland Security. On Wednesday, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved two big ticket deals—one on procuring 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters at a cost of USD 2.6 billion and six AH-64E Apache helicopters for USD 800 million from the US.
Both the deals are expected to be sealed during Trump's visit. Kumar said there could be some announcements on expanding defence cooperation during the visit by the US president.
Asked whether India will raise the issue of cross-border terrorism during the talks, Kumar said strong counter-terror cooperation between the two countries was evident after the Pulwama attack last year. When asked about the expected outcome of Trump's visit, Kumar said it should be seen in the context of reaching a certain stage of maturity in the relationship.
Talking about defence cooperation, Kumar said both sides have initiated a joint tri-services exercise named Tiger Triumph as an annual drill.
Asked about the status of civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries, he said US firm Westinghouse and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) are in discussion to build six 1,100 MW capacity reactors at Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh. "Following resolution of Westinghouse's bankruptcy issues, the two sides are in discussion regarding the division of responsibility of the work. NPCIL has visited the US reference plant to understand Westinghouse's modular construction methodology," Kumar said.
Asked about possible cooperation in the area of space, he said the two sides are cooperating in Mars exploration, heliophysics, and human spaceflight. "On commercial front, ISRO has launched 209 satellites from the US, on-board PSLV, as co passengers. ISRO and NASA are together building a microwave remote sensing satellite with dual frequency (L and S band) Synthetic Aperture Radar," he said.
"NASA will contribute L-band Radar, while ISRO will contribute S-band Radar and the satellite. This joint mission is planned to be realised for launch in 2022. This is the world's first dual frequency SAR satellite," he said. The MEA spokesperson said ISRO is also working with US government agencies for cooperation in safety of spaceflight through exchange of situational awareness information.
Opposition questions visit
The Congress on Thursday questioned the prime minister over the Gujarat government spending Rs 120 crore on a three-hour event for US President Donald Trump, saying diplomacy is serious government business and not a series of photo-ops and event management tactics. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala posed a series of questions to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him when was US President was invited for the visit and why was he claiming that he was promised a grand event by Modi with 7 million people in attendance.
"Dear PM, Intriguing news from Ministry of External Affairs! Please state - Who is the President of Donald Trump Abhinandan Samiti? When was the invitation extended to U.S President and accepted? Why is President Trump then saying you have promised him a grand event with 7 million people," he asked.
"Dear PM, Why is Gujarat government then spending Rs 120 crore for a 3 hour event organized by an unknown private entity," Surjewala asked on Twitter.
"India values its visiting dignitaries but please note - Diplomacy is serious government business and not a series of photo-ops and event management tactics," the Congress leader said.
-Inputs from PTI