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Delhi prepares for Trump surprises at Modi meet

India's foreign office isn't ready to call Donald Trump a maverick. But the US President is different enough from traditional leaders for India to prime itself for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's meeting with him on Monday going beyond the script diplomats will prepare for them.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 23.06.17
Donald Trump

New Delhi, June 22: India's foreign office isn't ready to call Donald Trump a maverick. But the US President is different enough from traditional leaders for India to prime itself for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's meeting with him on Monday going beyond the script diplomats will prepare for them.

The President's "personality" will not influence India's ties with America, the foreign office said today, four days before Modi visits Trump at the White House, while disagreeing with a description of the US leader as a "maverick".

But two Indian officials confirmed to The Telegraph that India was tuning its preparations for the June 26 meeting in the light of clues picked up about not just the US President's priorities but also his behaviour with other leaders.

From tutoring Modi about the off-track subjects Trump might turn to during their meeting to ensuring that India's media-savvy Prime Minister doesn't hurt the US President's ego by outshining him, the foreign ministry is preparing for multiple contingencies, the officials said.

Every meeting between two world leaders has an element of inbuilt unpredictability, and the foreign office today highlighted that explicitly when asked about Modi's upcoming Washington trip.

Narendra Modi

"Of course, the leaders will be briefed by officials, but it is not our practice to constrain their conversation," foreign ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay said, repeating the statement twice later. "It is not my endeavour to constrain their conversation."

Modi, who has spoken thrice on the phone with Trump, will be meeting the US President for the first time when he steps into the White House on Monday afternoon. The Indian Prime Minister will arrive in Washington on Saturday night, travelling from Portugal, where he will fly on Saturday morning.

Modi's plans in Washington beyond his meeting with Trump highlight the pillars of the bilateral relationship that New Delhi wants to focus on.

On Sunday, Modi is scheduled to meet the CEOs of major American firms, including multinationals, where he will try and make sure he has their support on trade and investment with India before he meets Trump.

Indian officials expect the US President, who has railed against unfair trade deals, to seek more market access and lower tariffs for American companies. Trump has also emphasised the creation of jobs in America - a theme that has placed Indian information technology firms in the crosshairs of criticism.

Modi will cite the upcoming implementation of the Goods and Services Tax - a national tax code that foreign investors have long sought - as an example of his government's reforms. A vote of confidence from major American firms, or at least an appreciation of their concerns with India, may assist Modi in his meeting with Trump the following day.

India has worried over the past six months about the implications of Trump's nativist nationalism and reluctance to pursue his predecessor's Asia Pacific policy on bilateral relations. Officials here, however, remain convinced that Indo-US ties are better insulated than America's relations with other partners.

The breadth and depth of India's relationship with the US - New Delhi does not share as many mechanisms for interaction and cooperation with any other country - remains its strength, officials have consistently argued, even amid uncertainty about Trump's policies. "I will not place any stock to the personality here," Baglay said. "The relationship is institutional."

Modi's three phone conversations with Trump are not known to have drifted into controversial territory. And the Prime Minister's visit will foreshadow America's announcement of a new ambassador to India, whom New Delhi knows well and respects.

Kenneth Juster, currently a member of Trump's National Economic Council, had in 2003 helped launch the high technology cooperation group between the nations, a mechanism that helped with the exchange of sensitive technology that can be used for civilian and military purposes.

In a 2010 working paper for the think-tank Center for a New American Security, Juster had argued for America loosening its rules for the export of high-technology defence equipment to India - a position that broadly mirrors New Delhi's.

Still, the foreign office is familiar with Trump's potential to veer off course during meetings and conversations with other world leaders, and his desire to remain in the media spotlight.

When the Australian Prime Minister spoke with Trump soon after the US President had taken over, the American is believed to have chastised the Australian and to have even disconnected the conversation as it turned tense.

At the Nato summit last month, Trump gruffly shoved aside Montenegro's Prime Minister to reach the front row during a group photo.

Modi is expected to address the Indian American community in Washington, but officials confirmed the event would not mirror the scale of the Prime Minister's rock-star reception at New York's Madison Square Garden in 2014, or in San Francisco in 2015.

Preparations for Modi's meeting with Trump have focused on using the talks to strengthen the pillars of the bilateral relationship -- defence and nuclear ties, global cooperation, trade and investment, and counter-terrorism, officials said.

But while some of the preparation has been similar to what the foreign office is used to before major visits, the rest has been different.

"(We are preparing) similarly and differently," Baglay said, when asked today.

Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, national security adviser Ajit Doval and defence minister Arun Jaitley are among senior Modi government officials who have travelled to Washington to meet Trump's team in preparation for the Prime Minister's visit. What they gleaned from those visits will "feed into our preparation", Baglay said.

"But there are other areas," he said. "As we all know, there is a new administration in the US."

US drones sale

The US has cleared the sale of 22 Guardian drones to India, government sources said today, a deal being termed as a "game changer" for bilateral ties ahead of Modi's visit to Washington.