From ‘Ike’ to Trump: Reviewing the 2020 US Presidential Visit to India

Merieleen Engtipi
February 16, 2020


The US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will make their maiden visit to India on February 24-25, later this month with one stop at Ahmedabad, Gujarat, apart from New Delhi. It is also a much-awaited trip for Prime Minister Modi, who in his official visit to the US in 2017 extended his invitation to Donald Trump and his family. Finally, PM Modi has the opportunity to host President Trump in India and reciprocate the gesture. Modi had also invited Trump to be the chief guest of the Republic day parade, but the latter could not accept the offer due to scheduling issues. Trump has hosted the Prime Minister of India twice, which includes his recent visit to Houston, Taxes, in an event organized by the American Indian community titled “Howdy Modi.” In reciprocity, Modi is looking forward to hosting an event on the same lines; “Kem Chho Trump”, at the new Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium with a crowd of over 1.25 lakh witnessing the special program.

Tracing history, Eisenhower (popularly known as Ike) was the first U.S. President to have visited India in 1959, which came after a decade of Prime Minister Nehru’s visit to the US in 1949. Eisenhower visited India as a part of his 11 Nation “goodwill tour”; however, it was a historic 5-day visit, nudging India-US bilateral relations to a start. Eisenhower was greeted with a ceremonial welcome with a meeting with the President and Prime Minister of India, and he also addressed the Joint Session of the Parliament. In a quote from a correspondent covering the visit, he wrote, “It was the greatest welcome ever accorded to any American President anywhere.”

After a decade, Richard Nixon visited India in 1969, making him the first US President to visit India in his first term. The visit came after six months of his presidency, as a part of his Asian tour. So far, he set the record of having the shortest visit to India by any US President, with barely 22 hours on the clock. However, he is the only President to have visited India both as President and Vice-President of the US in 1953, and having previously also visited India as a private citizen in 1963 and 1967. Unlike Eisenhower, Nixon’s visit reflected the tension between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Nixon, with the situation only worsening with the 1971 Bangladesh war.

Following a similar trend, within a year shorter than a decade from then, India hosted another US President in January 1978. Seeking a fresh start to India-US bilateral relationship, Carter visited India only months after Congress party in India was ousted out of power, paving the way for the Janata Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Carter’s two-day visit to India was part of his nine-day tour of seven nations. India’s nuclear ambition was a hot topic of interest for the US, as it was during that decade that India tested its first “peaceful” nuclear device. The legacy of his visit, unfortunately, fell on the infamous tape, wherein conversation with his Secretary of State on nuclear issues put out a blunt message, “I think we should write him another letter, just cold and very blunt.”

After more than two decades of estranged relations, Clinton visited India during the last months of his second term in 2000; however, it signalled a start of a new friendship, which began by ending American sanctions to India, imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests. It was a historic tour of four cities- Hyderabad, Jaipur, Mumbai and New Delhi, and a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. Clinton, after Eisenhower, was the only US President who created memorable moments in India, turning a new leaf to Indo-US bilateral relationship, and a “strategic reorientation” for the US towards India. He is one of the most popular US Presidents to have visited India, and his visit was dubbed nothing less than a “rockstar,” driving attention and admiration even among the parliamentarians after his address in the Indian Parliament.

For the first time in the history of POTUS visits to India, there was no President skipping India in their global itinerary, even as George W. Bush visited India in his second term. Though not popular among some sections of the Indian community due to war on Iraq, Bush took the Indo-US strategic relationship to a new height with the signing of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, making India the only country outside NPT to pursue nuclear commerce. During the visit, he did not receive the honor of addressing the parliament due to some political opposition, but he addressed an audience of select few in New Delhi’s Purana Qila.

Obama created history in POTUS visits to India, as he became the only US President to visit India twice, one in each term. Also, he is the first US President to grace India as the chief guest in the 2015 Republic Day celebration. His 2010 visit started at Mumbai where he stayed at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, payed homage at the memorial to the civilians killed in a terror attack in the city, a symbolism of “US solidarity against terrorism.” Being the first President to visit twice, he got the opportunity to be hosted both under the Prime Ministership of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.

With Eisenhower, in total, only six presidents have visited India, making Donald Trump the seventh. There is much anticipation of his visit by his Indian counterpart. Although President Trump’s visit is only for two days, observers are seeking to make a comparison with Clinton’s visit, and a “bromance” of an earlier era between “Ike and Nehru.” Trump’s visit comes just weeks after being acquitted by Senate in impeachment trial and also months before the general elections. Beyond Trump-Modi friendship, India is waiting for a trade deal with the US, which will also determine the legacy of his visit this February.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***