NEW DELHI: US President Donald Trump arrived in India to a rousing welcome on Monday and soon settled down to praising the country’s ‘secular heritage and the need to fight terrorism while building bridges with Pakistan’.

“The United States and India are committed to working together to stop terrorists, and to fight their ideology,” Mr Trump said in an address at the sprawling Motera cricket stadium in Ahmedabad which was packed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cheering supporters.

“With this reason, since taking office, my administration is working in a very positive way with Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist organisations and militants that operate on the Pakistani border.

“Our relationship with Pakistan is a very good one and thanks to these efforts, we are beginning to see signs of big progress with Pakistan. And we are hopeful of reduced tension, and greater stability and future harmony for all of the nations of South Asia,” he said.

Says Washington’s relationship with Islamabad is a good one

Mr Trump urged India to work on integrating the region. “India has an important leadership role to play in shaping a better future, as you take on the responsibility of solving problems and promoting peace throughout this incredible region.”

Following a hurricane tour of Ahmedabad where Mr Modi escorted him to the cricket stadium and Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati hermitage, Mr Trump flew to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal with his family before arriving in New Delhi for a state banquet at the British-built Presidential Palace. Formal talks with Mr Modi are scheduled on Tuesday morning, and Mr Trump has spoken of a large defence deal.

The government has struggled to explain the significance of the visit beside the optics. But Mr Modi was clear about the purpose. “The arrival of Trump and his family reflects the family-like close ties between the two countries. The ties between US and India is not just another partnership, it is a far greater and deeper relationship.”

Mr Trump underscored a similar purpose. “Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to an exceptional leader, a great champion of India, a man who works night and day for his country, and a man I am proud to call my true friend, Prime Minister Modi.”

He was categorical, evidently on purpose, to highlight India’s secular heritage to his host. “India is a country that proudly embraces freedom, liberty, individual rights, the rule of law, and the dignity of every human being. Your nation has always been admired around the earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus, and Muslims, Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews worship side by side in harmony.”

As Mr Trump was speaking, a peaceful protest in Delhi against Mr Modi’s communally framed citizenship law was disrupted by rival groups and mayhem ensued. It soon turned into pitched battles between the groups. A policeman and a civilian were reported killed in the violence, which Home Minister Amit Shah reportedly described as orchestrated.

The Modi establishment is not known for its bipartisan inclusiveness in dealing with the opposition. This was evident also in handling the Trump visit. The first sectarian moment came when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s name was deleted from those that would guide the US First Lady through a programme at one of the schools run by the Delhi government. Then Congress leader Sonia Gandhi’s name was deleted from the guest list for the banquet. This prompted former prime minister Manmohan Singh and opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad to express their regrets from attending the banquet.

Congress leaders said the prime minister did not honour the tradition of including the opposition members in such events. He had kept the Congress out at the Gujarat rally, while his own meeting in Houston had the participation of both the Republicans and the Democrats.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2020