New Delhi: With US president Donald Trump making it clear from the outset that he will be restrained in his comments, it came as little surprise when he lavished praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his press conference here on Tuesday despite bringing up the two contentious topics of Kashmir and religious freedom.
Trump stated that he discussed the latter with Modi but was convinced by his host’s “very powerful answer”.
With the opening riff of ‘Hail to the Chief’ playing, Trump walked up to the dais in the large hall of ITC Maurya Sheraton, packed with around 200 Indian and US members of media who had been waiting for around two and half hours.
The press conference was his penultimate engagement in India, before leaving for the presidential banquet at Rashtrapati Bhawan and then wheels up from Delhi.
“I won’t be controversial…don’t want to blow this up. Will be conservative in my answers,” he said at the outset.
Over the next 45 minutes, he was asked questions related to US domestic issues, from the Supreme Court judge, Sonia Sotomayor, to the Harvey Weinstein verdict, to which he gave combative answers. However, on issues related to India, Trump either skirted around or possibly misunderstood the questions.
An Indian correspondent asked in a roundabout manner how he could reconcile his “love for Indians in India” with his reluctance to grant more H1B US visas for Indians. Trump, however, just waxed eloquent on how the reception that he got was the biggest for any foreign leader in India.
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) February 25, 2020
Then, another query from a correspondent was whether US companies investing in India were satisfied with the business environment in India. Trump answered by just referring to Indian companies investing “billions of dollars” in United States.
He also spoke about “Mr Patel who will build a million dollar plant in Alabama”, confusing ‘Patel’ for Mittal. Trump had just met with Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal at the roundtable with business leaders organised by US embassy, where the US president had volunteered that he was aware of Mittal’s proposal to start a big plant in Alabama.
Ahead of the presidential visit, a senior US administration official had said that the matter of religious freedom would be raised during the visit.
Asked about this, Trump stated that there was a discussion on religious freedom “for a very long time”. The Indian PM, he said, was all for religious freedom. “Relative to other places, they have worked very hard on it”.
The US president said that the discussions related not just to alleged discrimination against Muslims, but also “specifically Christians”. He said that PM Modi gave him a “very powerful answer” in front of a “big group of people”. The answer, according to Trump, was that the Muslim population in India stood at 200 million, while earlier it had been 14 million. It is not clear whether Trump was conveying Modi’s answer accurately, since the Muslim population even during the 1951 Census was 35 million.
When asked whether he was the correct advocate to talk about religious freedom, Trump defended the “travel ban” which had been imposed against citizens of mostly Muslim-majority nations. “I won the travel ban. It was not about religion but about areas where we don’t want people to come in. It was not against Muslims”.
He was asked twice about India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, but stated that it was up to India to look into it. “I don’t want to discuss that and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people”.
An American reporter then turned to the riots in Delhi in which Hindutva mobs have targeted anti-CAA protesters and Muslims more generally. “While you have been here in the country… there have been violent clashes, police have been killed, some demonstrators. There have been nine deaths so far and 100 injured. What did PM Modi tell you about this amended citizenship law and how much are you concerned about this kind of religious violence?,” he asked Trump.
“We did talk about religious freedom,” Trump replied, going on to praise Modi for the assurances he gave. “As far as the individual attacks, I heard about it and I didn’t discuss that with him. That was upto India.”
Pakistan, terror, the Taliban
To multiple questions on terror emanating from India’s neighbourhood, Trump said that they “talked a lot about Pakistan”.
“India is a brave nation. There is no pullback from India. I said that I will help what I can. I said that I will help what I can. My relations with both gentlemen (referring to Pakistan Prime Minister) is so good. Anything I can do to mediate.. help, I can do. Kashmir is a thorn on a lot of people’s side… There are two sides to every story”.
As has been the norm during this visit, Trump lavished praise on Modi as a “very religious man, but very calm, who is also very tough”. He added that the Indian PM will be able to tackle terrorism.
However, when asked about terror organisations based in Pakistan, Trump seemed reluctant to venture into it. To a question about his roadmap to eradicating “radical Islamic terrorism” – a phrase he used in his speech in Ahmedabad on Monday – he only referred to steps taken against ISIS and the targeted assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
However, in his Ahmedabad speech the US president had said that his administration was “working in a very positive way with Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist organisations and militants that operate on the Pakistani border”.
On the imminent peace deal with Taliban in Afghanistan, Trump was assertive. “India would like to see it happen. I spoke to Prime Minister Modi and they would like to see it happen”. India, so far, has not made any public statements about the peace deal with Taliban, especially since it has kept a distance from the insurgent group.
Turning towards economic issues, Trump said that high tariffs by India were the main sticking points in a trade deals. “You can’t do that if you want to deal with us”. However, he also praised the reduction in the deficit from $30 billion to $24 billion.
He added that if there was a trade deal, it would happen towards the end of 2020.
Foreign interference in US elections
At one point, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked him if he will pledge to reject foreign interference in the 2020 election. Trump said that he doesn’t want help from any country, but then attacked CNN. “If you see what CNN, your wonderful network, said, I guess they apologized in a way for – didn’t they apologise for the fact that they said certain things that weren’t true? Tell me, what was their apology yesterday?”
Acosta retorted, “Mr. President, I think our record on delivering the truth is a lot better than yours sometimes.”