There is delirious delight all around over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance at a rally of 50,000 Indian Americans in Houston, Texas, at the start of his week-long visit to the United States. Mr Modi’s admirers, as well as Modi-watchers in general, seem overwhelmed by the size and magnitude of the event, which verges on being a grand spectacle without it being one because the cultural show that preceded the speeches has been termed kitschy, or lacking in sophistication. It might appear that where numbers count, it is not right to ask for quality. Now that the razzmatazz is done with, the 50,000 Indian Americans — how many of them were American citizens and how many working in the United States but holding on to their Indian passport is not known — have gone home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump have moved on to other more serious engagements — Mr Modi was at the United Nations Global Summit on Climate Change and Mr Trump had a meeting with Pakistan PM Imran Khan — it is time to look at the Modi-Trump show with after-the-event sober eyes.
There were six main players at the show — the 50,000 Indian Americans (were they all of 50,000 there?), the non-profit Texas India Forum (TIF), which had organised the event, the sponsors who included Walmart, Oyo and Tellurian, the gas major, the Indian embassy, or more specifically India’s ambassador to Washington Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who is considered the mastermind of the show, Mr Modi, Mr Trump, the US and lastly India — and we have to assess who gained the most from the Houston event.
It seems that many Indians in the US, whether they are American citizens or non-resident Indians (NRIs), are vocal supporters of Mr Modi and his ultra-nationalist politics. A young woman from India who had moved to the US a few years ago had said that Indians in America love former President Barack Obama in the US and Mr Modi in India, and that these US Indians live shamelessly with this contradiction. What they have got out of the event is the simple thrill of seeing their hero, Mr Modi, and with Mr Trump in tow a bonus. They would all have to go back to their daily routines, but they will fondly remember for long their encounter with Mr Modi. But living in America, they must have realised that you get to meet the political biggies by paying for contributory dinners or donations to campaign funds. So, the encounter with Mr Modi would not retain the fizz that it would have in India, where most political leaders, including Mr Modi, are largely inaccessible. The sponsors, Walmart, Oyo and Tellurian, would get their just desserts in due time. Tellurian had already scored through the multi-billion-dollar gas sale contract with Indian public sector entity Petronet. The TIF would have strengthened its credibility in the eyes of the American political class by proving the numbers they can marshal. Ambassador Shringla must be a happy man too that he has been able to pull off an event of this magnitude without any glitches.
Mr Modi, like any popular politician, loved the adulation. It energised him immensely. His takeaway from the event wass that he has the satisfaction of experiencing once again the adoration of his fans. Unfortunately, he used the occasion to commit two little mistakes. He should not have indulged in that cringe-worthy eulogy of candidate Donald Trump, which is only to be matched by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s embarrassing remark to then US President George W. Bush during the days of the India-US civil nuclear deal a decade ago that most Indians “loved him”. Whether it was impolitic for the Indian Prime Minister to endorse an American presidential candidate is a separate issue. Mr Modi could have spared the blushes for Indians had he not been carried away by his enthusiasm for President Trump despite the convergence of political views of the two of them. But there is not much that Mr Modi has actually gained from the Houston event. He has not become an influential player in American politics. The other little mistake was speaking about Kashmir to expatriate Indians because J&K is an internal affair and he did not have explain his decision at any international forum. The Houston event was not really an Indian affair. It would be naïve to think so.
It appears that Mr Trump was not on the programme at the Houston show. He seems to have invited himself, and neither TIF nor the Indian embassy could have said “no”. Texas is a Republican state, with 23 of its 36 members of the House of Representatives and both its Senators from the party. The state was a blue (Democratic) stronghold through much of the last century, but it is now clearly a red (Republican) state. Will the Indian Americans vote for Mr Trump because of Mr Modi is an open question. Some of them may do so, but it is not certain whether a majority among Indian Americans in Texas will go over to the Republican side. Mr Trump in his speech had emphatically reminded the Indian Americans that they are Americans, and praised them for being tax-paying, law-abiding American citizens. He had also thundered about how India was investing more in America and that US exports to India are growing. This would indirectly serve as a reality check for Mr Modi’s hero-worshippers.
Mr Trump has a hard fight ahead of him in the 2020 elections and Mr Modi’s endorsement of his candidacy could only add to his woes. Former vice-president and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden had threatened to hold Mr Trump guilty of allowing a foreign leader to intervene in America’s domestic politics if Mr Trump were to win and it was shown that Mr Modi had played the role of the facilitator. Mr Modi and his diplomatic and intelligence advisers must have assessed the risk of Mr Modi endorsing President Trump, and they must have concluded that Mr Trump was sure to win a second term at the White House.
It turns out that Houston has ended up being a show of small or no gains, small thrills that could linger longer, and uncertain risks.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst...