Trump hosts 'true friend' Modi for first one-on-one

Photo: AFP

Donald Trump hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Monday for a first tete-a-tete aimed at building a personal rapport in spite of very real divergences between the two leaders, whether on climate change or immigration.

A senior Indian official voiced hope for "chemistry," while a US official said the two men had a lot in common, noting that Modi would be the first foreign dignitary to have a working dinner at the White House under the new administration.

Initial signs were upbeat, with Trump describing Modi as a "true friend!" on Twitter, and the Indian leader posting that he "greatly looked forward" to the one-on-one.

Some commentators have suggested Modi and Trump should have a natural affinity, having both risen to power in part by castigating the traditional ruling elite while offering a strongly nationalistic vision.

"Both have portrayed themselves as outsiders, promised jobs and to make their countries respected (again), and used or taken advantage of identity politics," wrote Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution.

Both also entertain a wary relationship with the media - preferring to reach out directly to their base via social media, where Modi's nearly 31 million Twitter followers rival Trump's 32 million.

Relations between the world's two largest democracies had warmed under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, as India sought greater foreign investment and trade ties.

But it was not long after Trump's election that obstacles emerged on issues such as trade and visas for Indians wanting to work in the United States.

Then Trump accused India of seeking to profit from the Paris climate accord as he announced the US withdrawal from the deal this month - drawing sharp denials from New Delhi.

A proposed overhaul of H-1B visas - used by thousands of Indian software engineers to work in the United States - has also caused concern in New Delhi.

'Minimum government'

After an Oval Office meeting mid-afternoon the leaders will dine together at the White House, though no press conference is scheduled.

That decision - a contrast with high-profile visits from other leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - may reflect a White House effort to avoid a flurry of questions over the probe into suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which has dogged the young Trump administration.

On Sunday Modi told top American executives that India is a business-friendly country of "minimum government" - a message expected to resonate with Trump, who has proposed streamlining what he calls business-hampering US regulations and cutting the budgets of several US government agencies.

Trump's protectionist instincts, however, are at odds with India's efforts to boost exports and encourage Western manufacturers to "Make In India" - a flagship Modi scheme.

The Indian premier castigated "rising parochial and protectionist attitudes" in a speech shortly after Trump took office that was widely interpreted as a dig at the president's "America First" mantra.

Modi's core goals for the meeting, analysts say, are simple: "ensure that India is on the US's radar, and that the new US administration maintains policy continuity with the last one," said Shailesh Kumar of the Eurasia group.

"Modi will arrive at the White House with a full-on charm offensive aimed squarely at Donald Trump."

A Hindu nationalist, Modi was effectively barred from the United States for years after deadly communal riots in the western state of Gujarat while he was chief minister. Most of those killed were Muslims.

But after his landslide election victory, Modi built a strong rapport with Obama.

"Modi will try to give Trump some tweetable wins," said Madan, which in the defense arena could see the announcement of a $2 billion deal by US manufacturer General Atomics to supply unarmed drones to India.

The White House refuses to comment on US arms sales before Congress has been officially notified, but a senior administration official underscored that "this defense relationship is extremely important for both countries".

Regional security is expected to be high on the agenda as Washington considers deploying up to 5,000 extra troops in Afghanistan to help local forces fighting insurgent groups and seeks to encourage what an administration official describes as India's "positive role" in the country.

Trump's administration has meanwhile indicated it could take a tougher stance on Pakistan, which India has long accused of harboring militant groups.