Narendra Damodardas Modi, self-proclaimed chaiwala and former RSS pracharak, has supposedly lived an austere life and worked at the grassroots level for years with very basic comforts. But as Prime Minister of India representing 1.3 billion people, he dreams big, thinks big and acts big! Sometimes, one wonders from where he has developed and honed this art for transforming a simple event into a mega-event and stride on the big stage as a rock star. “Howdy, Modi” in Houston at the NRG Stadium bringing together 50,000-plus boisterous, enthusiastic admirers of Mr Modi from the Indian diaspora, the largest gathering for any elected world leader ever, which makes his earlier appearances at MSG in New York, Wembley in London, Melbourne in Australia and San Diego in California rather modest, shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Modi Hai toh Mumkin Hai seems to work on foreign soil as well.
However, it must have been a somewhat galling and deflating experience for the US President, the most powerful person on earth, that a visiting Indian Prime PM, at an event in an American city, should have more admirers in the stadium and get much louder applause than him.
“Howdy, Modi”, with the accompanying noise, music, dance, chants and speeches and all the trappings of a huge rock concert, underlines the compelling raison d’etre:
(a) Recognition of Brand Modi, assiduously built in less than six years and his unmistakable connect with and immense popularity among the Indian diaspora. (b) Recognition of India’s significance as a major world power with which the US ought to strengthen relations notwithstanding all the negative stories appearing in the media. (c) Recognition of the expanding economic and political biceps of the Indian-American community in the domestic electoral politics of the US. (d) The prospect of many guests in the audience being swayed to vote for Mr Trump following his appearance with Mr Modi. (e) The Indian-American community’s expectation that, taking note of Mr Modi’s closeness with the US President, it won’t be treated unfairly.
Mr Modi ‘s political tango with Mr Trump would further solidify the larger-than-life global persona being built around him which will be used by the BJP to the hilt in the forthcoming elections in India and might pay off. There is no gainsaying the fact that the informality, warmth, bonhomie and personal chemistry with POTUS publicly demonstrated by Mr Modi can’t be matched by the interactions of the Japanese PM or the French or South Korean Presidents with him.
The workaholic Indian PM maintains a punishing work schedule. Within hours of his arrival in Houston, he held discussions with key American companies from the energy sector .The signing of the MoU by Petronet LNG Ltd with the American MNC Tellurian Inc for the import of five million tonnes of LNG per year has somewhat assuaged Mr Trump’s repeated rants about trade imbalances. He did acknowledge this MoU and also admitted that Indian companies are investing in the US now. It has to be seen if in the next few days it paves the way for the signing of a mini FTA which could focus on certain key areas, like the export of electronics, health equipment, cherries and pork from the US and the removal of tariffs by India on American items like apples, almonds and pistachios and possibly the restoration of GSP for Indian products.
He did well to reach out to Indian minority communities in Houston — the Sikhs, Kashmiri Pandits, Sindhis and Dawoodi Bohras — which will improve his image.
Both the leaders heaped praise on each other as if it were a mutual appreciation club! Mr Modi praised Mr Trump for his strong leadership and efforts to “Make America Great Again”, and standing by India in the fight against terrorism, strengthening relations with India saying that he had always found him warm, friendly and accessible.
Mr Modi described the “Howdy, Modi” event as reflective of the “heartbeat of the great partnership” between the two countries.
Without naming Pakistan, he did allude to it for being the epicentre of terrorism and using terrorism as a part of state policy.
By flagging the abrogation of Article 370, he indirectly got Mr Trump’s endorsement that it was India’s internal matter. He also stressed on the cheap availability of data in India, and hence the issue of data localisation.
Mr Trump complimented Mr Modi for having won a historic victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and for introducing economic reforms and having pulled millions of Indians out of poverty.
Hard negotiations are still to come but the two tough and astute dealmakers should be able to strike mutually beneficial deals which will take the relationship to a new, higher level.
Extra-territorial application of CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act) is highly objectionable, as American sanctions on Russia and Iran directly impact India’s national security and energy security. Mr Trump’s keenness to exit from Afghanistan, leaving behind a power and security vacuum, is akin to offering Afghanistan on a platter to the Taliban and prospects of the Taliban coming back to power with deeper Pakistani involvement is an open invitation to chaos, bloodbaths, instability and the intensification of terrorist attacks against India.
Defying all canons of capitalism, Mr Trump is erecting trade barriers and opposing globalisation and multilateralism. He is not on the same page with India regarding the WTO and climate change. While the US has eliminated the largest number of terrorists since September 11, 2001, it has no qualms to the return to power in Kabul of the Taliban though it had dislodged them from power in Kabul in 2002.
The oft-repeated claims of shared values and shared ideals are music to the ears, but these do not take relations between countries too far unless there are concrete economic takeaways.
Some strategic analysts feel that slowly India is slipping into the tight hug of the US and given the economic and military asymmetry between the two, at some point, it might become too tight for comfort — and that its autonomy of decision-making regarding international developments might get eroded.
The current warmth and bonhomie between Mr Trump and Mr Modi is welcome. But how long will it last? At least till the end of November 2020?
Mr Modi’s slogan “Abki Baar Trump Sarkar” must be music to Mr Trump’s ears. And it will pay off if he is re-elected. But if something goes wrong and he has to move out of the White House, this open endorsement might haunt us.
The writer is a former ambassador...