Hard bargain: In his speech, Donald Trump called Narendra Modi ‘fantastic and beautiful’

Washington/New Delhi: Unimpressed by duty cuts of 50%, he says Prime Minister Modi called him up but U.S. gets nothing and India thinks it is doing a favour

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticised Indian tariffs again, mentioning the import duty on Harley-Davidson motorbikes for the third time in a year. And for the second time in a week, he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him up personally to tell him about cutting the tariffs as he had desired.

“The Prime Minister, who I think is a fantastic man, called me the other day. He said, ‘We are lowering it to 50%.’ I said, “Okay, but so far we’re getting nothing.’ So we get nothing, he gets 50[%], and they think we’re doing — like they’re doing us a favour.”

When Mr. Modi made the call, India had not officially announced the decision to cut tariffs on imported motorcycles. While his reference to Mr. Modi as “fantastic and beautiful” may have been seen as complimentary, Mr. Trump also clasped his hands, apparently mimicking the Prime Minister as he recounted the alleged conversation.

The External Affairs Ministry refused to comment or confirm Mr. Trump’s remarks. Nor did it respond to a request for a readout of the conversation. After the last publicised telephone conversation on February 8, the White House announced that the two leaders had spoken on regional issues and “agreed to strengthen security and economic cooperation as they look forward to the 2+2 ministerial dialogue between their defence and diplomatic officials in April.” There was no mention of the Harley-Davidson issue. However, on February 14, Mr. Trump told members of Congress that Mr. Modi had called him up to inform him of the cuts, referring to him on that occasion as a “great gentleman”.

Mr. Trump’s contention that Mr. Modi had given him the information was more surprising as it indicated that the PM may have informed Mr. Trump on February 8 of the tariff cut, though the Finance Ministry (Department of Revenue) notified it only on February 12 (Notification No. 26/2018-Customs), which amended the earlier rate of 100%. The President’s statement is a clear indication of continuing tensions on trade issues. A senior administration official told The Hindu last week that the recent Union Budget in which customs duties on several items were increased might “make it more challenging”.

Congress Charge

Calling Mr. Modi’s call to Mr. Trump an effort to please the U.S. President, the Congress accused him of “undermining India’s sovereignty and financial independence”. “Such contact on the part of the PM is alien to our democratic set-up and the accountability of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet to Parliament,” Congress leader Randeep Surjewala said.