Trump in India: a brief history of the travels of the presidents of the United States

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and United States President Donald Trump shake hands while speaking during a bilateral meeting in Biarritz, southwestern France, on August 26, 2019.Copyright of the image
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Trump is making his first official visit to India

United States President Donald Trump expects a raucous welcome on his first official state visit to India on Monday and Tuesday.

There follows a long line of leaders who made the journey. Some of his predecessors were greeted with enthusiasm; others stumbled upon diplomatic gaffes; one even had a village that bore his name.

Can history be a guide on how this diplomatic test could go? Here is a brief look at past visits, sorted by how they went.

Good…

Let’s start from the beginning.

Dwight D Eisenhower, the first president of the United States to visit India, was greeted with a 21-gun salute when he landed in the national capital, Delhi, in December 1959. Huge crowds took to the streets to catch a glimpse of the hero of the Second War. World in his open-air car – Mr Trump expects a similar reception in the city of Ahmedabad, where he will do a street show.

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Dwight D Eisenhower, pictured with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first President of the United States to make the trip

The heat between him and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru helped during what was a rocky phase in the US-India ties. This happened at the beginning of the cold war, when the United States and Pakistan had become close allies and India insisted on remaining neutral or “non-aligned”. As today, relations with China were at the center of the India-USA equation, with Washington pushing Delhi to take an aggressive stance with Beijing on the Tibet issue.

But overall, Eisenhower’s four-day trip was successful. And almost every President of the United States on a state visit to India has emulated his itinerary: he threw flowers at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial, took the splendor of the Taj Mahal, turned to parliament and spoke in the iconic lands of Ramlila in Delhi, which, according to a news report, has attracted one million people.

When he left, Nehru said he had brought “a piece of our heart” with him.

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President Eisenhower was greeted by a large crowd

If there was a revolutionary visit, it would be Bill Clinton’s in March 2000 with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Mr. Clinton’s arrival came after a two-decade hiatus – neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush Snr made the journey east. It came at a difficult time since Washington had imposed sanctions on Delhi following the 1999 nuclear bomb test.

But, according to Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to the United States, the five-day trip was “a joyful visit”. It included stops in Hyderabad, a southern city that was emerging as a technology center and Mumbai, the financial capital of India. “He came and saw India’s economic and cybernetic potential and democracy in action,” says Sarna.

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Bill Clinton’s visit was described as “joyful”

Clinton also danced with the villagers, went on a tiger safari and tasted the famous creamy black Delhi (lentils) in a luxury hotel that has since been associated with the president.

The country’s reaction is perhaps best expressed in this New York Times headline: “Clinton fever – a happy India has all the symptoms.”

George W Bush, as Forbes magazine once said, was the “best US president India has ever had”. His three-day visit in March 2006 was a highlight of the strategic relations between the two countries, particularly in the field of nuclear trade and technology, topics on which they discussed at length. His strong personal dynamic with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was difficult to lose – after he left the post, Bush, a passionate artist, even painted a portrait of Singh.

The two leaders are credited for a historic but controversial nuclear deal, which was signed during Bush’s visit. It brought India, which for decades had refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (TNP), from isolation. Energy-hungry India had access to the United States’ civilian nuclear technology in exchange for opening its nuclear facilities for inspection.

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George W Bush and Manmohan Singh had an excellent relationship

However, although the visit was substantial, it was not as spectacular as the others: there was no trip to the Taj, nor a speech to parliament. But times were important. Anti-US sentiment about the invasion of Iraq was escalating: left-wing parliamentarians had organized a protest against Bush’s visit, and there were demonstrations in other parts of India.

Barack Obama was the only president to make two official visits. First, in 2010 with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and then in 2015 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On his first visit – in a break from the past – he landed in Mumbai, instead of Delhi, with a large commercial delegation. It was not just about economic ties, but a show of solidarity following the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed 166 people. The Obama spouses even stayed at the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the main objectives.

It has been significant that the President of the United States has declared support for India to join a reformed and expanded UN Security Council, says Alyssa Ayres, former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia. “That all these years later nothing has changed in the United Nations system is another matter, but that has been a major policy change for the United States.”

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Barack Obama has visited India twice

Obama returned in 2015 as the main guest at the Republic Day celebrations of India, at the invitation of Prime Minister Modi. Trade, defense and climate change have been at the heart of the talks. The trip also underscored an Indo-Pacific strategy, in which both leaders expressed unease about Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea.

The not so good …

Although Jimmy Carter’s two-day visit in 1978 was a thaw in India-US relations, it was not without hiccups.

With around 500 journalists in tow, Carter followed a busy itinerary: he met Prime Minister Morarji Desai, spoke at a joint parliamentary session, went to the Taj Mahal and left a village just outside Delhi.

The village, Chuma Kheragaon, had a personal connection: Carter’s mother, Lillian, had visited here when she was in India as a member of the Peace Corps in the late 1960s. So when Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, made the trip, they gave money to the village and its first television. He was also renamed “Carterpuri”, a moniker who still holds.

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Jimmy Carter is welcomed by the inhabitants of the village of “Carterpuri”

But beyond the photos, India and the United States were fighting. India was building its nuclear program and had conducted its first test in 1974. The United States wanted India to sign the NPF, which was trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. But India declined, saying the deal discriminated against developing countries.

In a leaked conversation that made headlines and threatened to derail the visit, Carter promised his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, a “very cold and very frank” letter to Desai. The two leaders signed a declaration, promising greater global cooperation, but Carter left India without the assurances he had hoped for.

The ugly…

Richard Nixon was no stranger to India when he arrived in August 1969 for a one-day state visit. He had been here as vice president in 1953, and before that for personal travel. But, by all accounts, he was not a fan.

“Nixon did not like Indians in general and despised them [Prime Minister] Indira Gandhi “, according to Gary Bass, author of Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a forgotten genocide. And, he adds, the feeling is said to be mutual.

This was also at the height of the Cold War and India’s non-alignment policy “shocked” American presidents. Bass says that under Gandhi, India’s neutrality had turned into an “evidently pro-Soviet foreign policy”.

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Richard Nixon greets the crowd next to Mohammad Hidyatullah, interim president of India

The relationship only became more sparkling after the trip when India supported Bangladesh (then eastern Pakistan) in its struggle for independence from Pakistan, a close American ally. The differences were stripped when Gandhi visited the White House in 1971. Later the cables of the declassified state department revealed that Nixon called her an “old witch”.

… and the future

The United States and India have certainly had their ups and downs, but during the last official visit in 2015, Obama and Modi signed a declaration of friendship: “Chalein saath saath (Let’s go on together) …” is started.

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Obama and Modi signed a friendship declaration in 2015

The visit by President Trump will continue the report, but it is unclear how.

His arrival in Ahmedabad, Prime Minister Modi’s main city in the state of Gujarat, followed by a major event in the arena, is expected to attract a huge crowd. It will echo President Eisenhower’s demonstration in Delhi years ago, perhaps cementing the personal ties between the two leaders.

But while Trump’s journey will be full of glitz, it may be light on politics. Unlike other presidential visits, this is not expected to reach concrete agreements, with the commercial agreement that Mr. Trump wants so much that it seems unlikely.

Follow Rajini on Twitter @BBCRajiniV

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