Trump’s gaffe on call with PM Modi is not a first, but a pattern

Trump’s gaffe on call with PM Modi is not a first, but a pattern

While officials acknowledge breach of protocol by the American President, they point out that the India-U.S. relationship remains strong nonetheless

Government officials have dismissed U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim that he spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the situation at the Line of Actual Control with China, as untrue. While this is the first time Mr. Trump has been accused by New Delhi of fabricating a conversation entirely, it is not the first time Mr. Trump has run into controversies by revealing details of conversations with the PM, including with their most recent conversation on April 4 on hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), the drug Mr. Trump favours as a cure for COVID-19.

In its readout of the call of the same day, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) made no mention of hydroxychloroquine, noting instead that the two leaders had spoken about the pandemic, its impact on the global economy, and even on the “significance of practices such as Yoga and Ayurveda” during these times. However, a few hours later, Mr. Trump revealed to the press that the reason for his call was to request the PM to relax India’s export ban on HCQ, which the Directorate General on Foreign Trade had strengthened only a day before that.

Even as India reconsidered its decision, Mr. Trump spoke again, this time appearing to threaten New Delhi if it did not release the drug to the U.S.

“If [PM Modi] doesn’t allow it [HCQ] to come out, that would be OK, but of course there may be retaliation,” Mr. Trump said, adding insult to his earlier indiscretion. Once the government lifted its ban, as it did not just for the U.S., but for more than a hundred other countries, Mr. Trump showered India and PM Modi with praise. The impression he left by revealing his conversation with the PM was that the U.S. had browbeaten the Indian government into ensuring HCQ supplies.

Diplomatic dissonance

The diplomatic dissonance over HCQ resembled Mr. Trump’s comments in 2018 about Indian tariffs on American Harley Davidson bikes, where he even mimicked PM Modi in remarks to the press. “The PM, who I think is a fantastic man, called me the other day. He said we are lowering [tariffs] to 50%,” Mr. Trump announced, adding that he still wanted the tariffs to be reduced to “zero”. What had made his comments more egregious was that at the time PM Modi had made the call, India had not officially announced the decision to cut tariffs on imported motorcycles, which made Mr. Trump’s delivery of the comments even more unpalatable.

Just weeks before the HCQ fracas this year, Mr. Trump had been in India for a bilateral visit, his first as U.S. President. While the country focused on preparations for the unprecedented joint rally planned at the Sardar Patel stadium, Mr. Trump stunned all with his account of another conversation with PM Modi.

“PM Modi said we will have millions and millions of people. He thinks we will have 5-7 million just from the airport to the new stadium,” said Mr. Trump, speaking to the press on February 12, a day after the visit was announced. At a rally in Colorado Springs a few days later, Mr. Trump upped his estimate of the crowd in Ahmedabad to “6-10 million people”. The assertion cast a blush on Indian officials making arrangements, who explained that given Ahmedabad’s entire estimated population was 7 million people, Mr. Trump was unlikely to receive the crowds he imagined. Eventually, however, Mr. Trump said he was very pleased with the more than 1 lakh people who attended the joint rally at the stadium and the “hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens who came out and lined the streets in a stunning display of Indian culture and kindness”.

Offers to mediate

While Mr. Trump has caught the government by surprise with his offer to mediate between India and China this year, last year, it was his offer to mediate between India and Pakistan that grabbed the headlines. A few weeks after PM Modi met with President Trump at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Mr. Trump met with Pakistan PM Imran Khan at the White House and announced he would “love to be a mediator” on Kashmir.

“I was with PM Modi two weeks ago and we talked about this subject and he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator.’ I said ‘where?’, he said ‘Kashmir’,” Mr. Trump said then.

India’s consistent policy is to resolve issues bilaterally, and it has always pushed back on offers of mediation, thus Mr. Trump’s comments were denied by the government in no uncertain terms after a furore in Parliament. No lasting damage was done by the comment or the denial, however, and less than two months later, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi stood together at a joint rally in Houston.

‘Expect the unexpected’

MEA officials say they have come to expect the unexpected when Mr. Trump speaks, and acknowledge that his habit of discussing publicly conversations held with a world leader are a breach of protocol. However, they point out that despite the comments, the India-U.S. relationship remains strong, and Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi remain on the best of terms.

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