Trump is not Coming

Is it true that US President Donald Trump has said 'no' to a request by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade on January 26? If so, it raises many intriguing questions.

According to the White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders, no final decision has been made about whether Trump will accept the invitation or not. Yet there is a flurry of reporting in both the US and Indian media that the answer is 'no'.

Diplomatic circles in Delhi say that this does not come as a surprise for the simple reason that the US President has to deliver the annual State of the Union address to the joint session of the United States Congress. The scheduled date is January 30, 2019 and it is unreasonable to expect Donald Trump to attend the Republic Day parade in India on Saturday January 26 and then fly 12,000 kilometres back to Washington to be in time for the State of the Union function on Tuesday.

The surprise they say is why Modi invited Trump in the first place. Neither of the dates was a secret and neither could have been changed even by a day. Unless there was some earth-shattering reason, there was no way the American President would have agreed to embark on a long journey to a distant foreign country involving a minimum of 30 hours of flying time even on his splendid official aircraft plane Air Force One.

So why was the invitation sent in April this year? Whose brainwave was it? Were the highly experienced officials of the Ministry of External Affairs even consulted or informed?
The manner in which major or minor decisions are taken in the current government is too well known to warrant further discussion.

A small group of advisors in and around the Prime Minister's office and residence calls the shots in momentous matters like Demonetisation or Rafale deal and also on routine policy which normally are left to individual ministers or bureaucrats.

The top-down method of governance has resulted in ministries unable to go through the traditional checks and balances in the decision-making process and even senior Ministers are often kept in the dark till the eleventh hour.

All this is being noticed and noted by the diplomatic community in New Delhi, which acts as the eyes and ears of foreign countries and whose job it is to send feedback to their respective governments on what is happening in India and which way the winds are blowing in the world's second-most populous nation.

As far as the United States is concerned, no other foreign mission keeps a sharper watch on India's politics, economics, and social and cultural developments. Apart from the sprawling Embassy complex on Shantipath in Chanakyapuri, the US has four major consulates in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata as well as what is called a Virtual Consulate in Bangalore.

In fact in terms of size, the US diplomatic mission in India is one of the largest in the world. Ambassador Kenneth Juster has Deputy Chief as well as seven Counselors and nine Attaches to assist him in his gigantic task of looking after 30 different Sections and Agencies.

US diplomats also keep constant watch on what is happening in an important Asian country like India. All publically available information is routinely collected and analysed from newspaper and television news and opinion to statements by political leaders and bureaucrats.

But the bulk of the inputs for their assessments is based on feedback from their extensive on-ground network of informants, and interaction with personal contact with locals in a variety of fields.

The Wikileaks expose of a cache of documents pertaining to India provided a glimpse of just how detailed, analytical and insightful the confidential reports sent by US Ambassadors and senior Embassy officials are.

There is a wealth of data that is collected and collated and all of it is studied by trained staff and sharp summaries are prepared with incisive comments before it is transmitted to the State Department headquarters in Washington.

Corporate America too always has its ear to the ground. America CEOs monitor the Indian economy very closely because they have huge investments at stake. They make their own assessments and calculations without depending on official statistics, ministerial pronouncements or day-to-day market fluctuations.

Latest available figures show that foreign investors have made up their mind - that this is not the right time to commit fresh money on new projects in India and in fact that it is a good time to withdraw or downsize some of the investments made earlier.

In other words, the Trump Administration in Washington is arguably better informed about what is happening in India's politics and economy than anyone in Indian media, bureaucracy or political parties.

Based on the distilled feedback, a decision seems to have been taken that President Trump should stay away from making any overt show of support to the Modi government just a few months before the general elections. Even if the date of his State of the Union address did not clash with India's Republic Day, he would probably found some other explanation for not making the trip.

The White House seems to have examined the ground situation in India and come to the conclusion that it would be better to wait for the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections, which could throw up a new government and a new Prime Minister.


Vol. 51, No.23, Dec 9 - 15, 2018