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Kem chho, Mr President?: ‘Howdy, Modi!’-style event in the works for Donald Trump in Ahmedabad

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US President Donald Trump may hold an event similar to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful “Howdy, Modi!” in Houston last September when he visits India next month, people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.

Hindustan Times learns that it is now almost certain that the visit will happen in February, although the dates are still being worked on. The people cited in the first instance said the visit will be a stand-alone one, extend across three days, and will involve Trump visiting one Indian city apart from New Delhi. That Indian city will hold a Houston-like event, one of the people said. Ahmedabad will likely be the city, this person added, although it is yet to be finalised. Prime Minister Modi is also expected to participate in the event.

Americans of Gujarati origin are likely to join the Howdy Trump show, the first person said, adding that the event is being seen by the US President’s handlers as a good walk-up to this year’s US elections, especially given the number of Gujaratis in the US. The Indian diaspora is an important vote bloc, especially in the US and the UK. In the latter, for instance, they played a significant role with the vote almost shifting en masse from Labour to Conservatives.

Trump and Modi are expected to sign a short-term trade deal that could grant the US companies more access to Indian markets and restore to India trade benefits withdrawn last summer. They will also discuss a longer-term trade pact that could include a Free Trade Agreement.

According to the people cited in the first instance, Trump’s visit is likely to be preceded by a visit by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to finalise the trade deal.

A second person familiar with the matter said that the trade talks are headed in a positive direction and should be completed within a month or 45 days. India’s commerce minister Piyush Goyal and the USTR have been in constant touch, this person added.

India wants the Generalized System of Preferences, which provides duty free access to the US to around 3500 products from India to be restored. In the summer of 2019, just a few days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his second term, the Trump administration terminated India’s eligibility for the preferential trade system. The US President has also routinely railed against India’s tariffs, termed it “tariff king”, and his administration has put together a thick book of grievances against India on trade — high tariffs (Harley Davidsons, for example, the president would mention frequently), trade imbalance, lack of market access, and other such.

Still, the two countries have made progress, the second person said. “Our first priority is restoration of GSP and the remaining issues will be worked out later.”

As a welcome gift to Trump, New Delhi is expected to approve the purchase of another six Apache attack helicopters from Boeing. Indeed, on the defence front, ties between the two countries have warmed. The United States renamed its Pacific military command as the Indo-Pacific Command in a nod to the growing importance of the region and ties with India. The administration also elevated India’s status to that of a NATO ally for purposes of trade in sensitive defence-related technology.

The US cleared the sale of 24 MH-60R Multi-Mission helicopters — Romeo Seahawks — for an estimated cost of $2.6 billion in April 2019, and 13 MK 45 anti-surface and anti-air naval gun systems, along with ammunition and related add-ons, worth about $1.02 billion later in the year in November.

India has also in the past placed an order for eight P-8I aircraft for $2.1 billion.

On the security front too, ties have improved. When the US President put Pakistan on notice for its support of terrorists, New Delhi felt comforted. And the US has been steadfast in its support for India on the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council where China has repeatedly tried to raise the matter.

The American president calls Prime Minister Modi a good friend, and they have indeed struck a rapport, as has been affirmed by officials on both sides.

The joint appearance of Trump and Modi at the Howdy Modi outreach to the Indian diaspora in September is often cited as an example of the chemistry shared by the two leaders.

The frequency of their meeting and interactions — they have met three times in the last six months, and spoken multiple times on phone — is the other pointer.

In an election rally in October 2016, candidate Trump said India and the United States would be “best friends” and “no relationship would be more important” if he were elected president.

He may well choose to repeat that in Ahmedabad.

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