'Howdy, Modi': Why Trump and the Indian prime minister need each other

'Howdy, Modi': Why Trump and the Indian prime minister need each other
President Donald J. Trump participates in bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of the Republic of India Narendra Modi at the Centre de Congrés Bellevue Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Biarritz, France, site of the G7 Summit. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Prime Minister Modi takes to the stage Sunday at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, in an event billed “Howdy, Modi,” sponsored by “hundreds of Indian-American groups.” The event was choreographed to celebrate Modi’s return to America after what seemed an interminably long gap of two years and three months.

The political managers of Modi and President Trump since negotiated a deal leading to the latter’s guest appearance at “Howdy, Modi.” The Washington Post noted, “For Trump, the rally provides access to a pool of voters—Indian Americans—that he hopes to court in next year’s presidential elections, even if the community tends to lean heavily Democratic.”

The Modi government is apparently willing to make some trade concession to the U.S. that “would allow Trump to claim a victory on one of his signature issues”—to quote from the Washington Post report. The external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, probably alluded to it when he told reporters Tuesday that he expected to see some of the “sharper edges” in the U.S.-India relationship “addressed in some form in the not-too-distant future.” Trump has alluded to making some big announcement during “Howdy, Modi.”

Texas was one of the potential swing states in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where Trump won by a 9 percent margin over Hillary Clinton. (The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976.) But the ground beneath Trump’s feet is shifting.

The Republican retirements from the House of Representatives have given Democrats hope of expanding their gains next year in Texas, where changing demographics in suburbs have reshaped the electorate in some districts. Texas may be emerging as a battleground heading into the 2020 campaign, and the state has rapidly diversifying suburbs where growth isn’t just centered around Hispanics but includes Asian Americans. A very heavily immigrant community will decide Trump’s prospects in Texas.

Modi is also scheduling meetings in Houston with energy CEOs, including the heads of Exxon Mobil and Cheniere Energy. Modi has informed Trump that India wants to continue being a buyer of U.S. energy and, more importantly, has big plans to make investments in the shale industry. Energy is a key template of “America First.” Trump instinctively promised to ensure that top U.S. energy officials will be in attendance in Houston.

In sum, Delhi made an offer to Trump he couldn’t possibly refuse. Having said that, “Howdy, Modi” is also a win-win. For Modi too, the event brings a bonanza.

The camaraderie on display is expected to boost Modi’s image, which took a beating recently over Kashmir and from the government’s abject failure on the economic front.

Modi places great store for his legacy as the “first Indian prime minister” who has done something or has visited X-Y-Z countries. And “Howdy, Modi” is the first time that any U.S. president and Indian prime minister will have addressed a public rally together. It’s a big deal for Modi.

Modi stands to gain by projecting that Trump’s presence at the rally signifies the U.S.’s acquiescence with what Delhi has done in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, Trump himself seems to be conscious of such a possibility. At any rate, the day after “Howdy, Modi,” he’ll have a bilateral meeting with Imran Khan in New York.

Trump is open to a resumption of the talks with the Taliban, and Imran Khan has openly stated that the Afghan peace process brooks no delay.

While Trump can’t help it if Indians cite his presence at “Howdy, Modi” as a diplomatic triumph for Delhi’s muscular Kashmir policies, he is making sure that the understanding he has reached with Imran Khan will not get eroded.

Trump openly empathized with Pakistan’s stance that Kashmir is a “Muslim issue” and offers every now and then to mediate, but that is not keeping him away from “Howdy, Modi” to espouse his affinities with Indians.

Trump gets away with it because he is singularly devoid of emotions. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu just had a bitter taste of it.

Not too long ago, Trump had joined King Salman of Saudi Arabia for an Al-Ardha, the traditional men’s sword dance of the bedouins, in a nostalgic reminder of former heroic battles, bringing to life timeless victories and pride of Saudi history. But when Saudi Arabia actually came under attack last Saturday, Trump ducked. He feels Saudi Arabia’s defense is entirely its business, not America’s—and if at all the U.S. were to protect Saudi Arabia, Saudis should bankroll it.

Netanyahu also used to propagate that he had Trump eating out of his hands, but when he needed Trump in the elections this week, the latter didn’t deliver.

There was no on-the-record confirmation of support from the White House for Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley annexation decision, nor did Netanyahu receive the defense pact he sought from the U.S., making do with a vague promise from Trump to speak about it when they meet next time.

The Jerusalem Post ruefully commented when the election results came, “Perhaps potential voters thought: ‘If Bibi isn’t as close with Trump as he used to be, maybe he isn’t so indispensable after all.’”

The point is, the Indian Diaspora in America may get delusional, but Modi himself would know Trump by now. Why do such a gig in Texas, which must be costing a fortune to the Sangh Parivar?

In 2016, the Modi government rooted for Hillary Clinton—and Trump won. What if Joe Biden wins in 2020? Palmer Report says Biden currently enjoys a double-digit lead over Trump.

Rahul Gandhi has a point when he tweeted, “‘Howdy’ economy doin’, Mr Modi? Ain’t too good it seems.” “Howdy, Modi” does seem an act of escapism from the economy and Kashmir, and it doesn’t add up.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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