Prime Minister Modi’s Houston Rally, called ‘Howdy Modi’, has been hailed by BJP supporters, Modi bhakts and most of the media as a historic moment in India’s foreign policy, touching the zenith of India’s standing in the world. The critics and some independent observers say, the event was stage-managed by BJP’s PR machinery and the proceedings in the rally left an unappealing legacy.
It is not unusual to have multiple perspectives on any issue or event in democratic politics. Also each political action will have positive and negative consequences. Good managers minimise the negatives and build on the positives gains. From such a premise, let us count the gains and losses in Modi’s mega event in Houston and his bilateral summits with Donald Trump. Rest of the tour is routine affair of a speech in the UNGA and bilateral meetings with heads of States on the fringe.
By any stretch of imagination and evaluation, the Houston event was great optics of diplomacy from India’s point of view showing the power of India Diaspora. Donald Trump had to come to the event to garner support from 50,000 American Indians gathered in Houston and 4-plus million living in the United States. It is no secret that Indian-Americans tend to support the Democrats in the US, and Trump would need every vote including those of 4 million-strong Americans of Indian origin to reclaim the mandate in 2020.
At the same time, many observers would suggest that the event revealed the statesmanship and diplomatic acumen of Prime Minister Modi. But did it really? Was it not more his PR capacity than statesmanship? By canvassing for Trump for 2020 presidential elections, Modi proved that he is merely a politician, not a statesman. The American theologian and author made this deep distinction when he said, “a politician looks at next election, but a statesman thinks of next generation”.
On the gains, for Modi, as well as India, it was great to have the President of the US, the most powerful country in the world, on the side of the Indian Prime Minister in a rally organised in his honour. The Houston rally also reiterated the growing closeness between the two countries. Discounting the encomiums heaped on each other, what was of grave importance to India was the US openly standing by India. This is critical for India as it faces the combined hostility from ChinPak (China and Pakistan). Having got the goodwill support of Russia on India-Pakistan relations where China is the main irritant, New Delhi can count on the backing of Americans.
Second, many discerning observers say that Trump is building up the counter-China alliance with Japan, India and Australia. Japan is solidly with the US, Australia is warming up to India and the US; that makes the Quad active and effective. So the Rally also endorsed the India-America strategic Alliance.
Third, there were some trade differences. Trump, much touted as transactional, had withdrawn the GSP offer to India, and there were other restrictions and tariffs etc. Most of these differences appear to have been ironed out, and both countries are ready to sign a new Trade treaty. This will be eased by Modi announcing to invest $2.5 billion in US oil and gas sector. From the reports, it seems India’s private sector company Petronet LNG was already inking a pact with Tellurian, Inc, Texas. Given the uncertainty of supplies from the Middle East, especially after half of Saudi Arabia’s production was disrupted by the recent drone attacks, for India, this investment would ensure some energy security at fixed rated with oil and gas supplies from US in future. The production of fossil fuel in US has surpluses looking for overseas markets. So it is win win-win situation for both.
Fourth, investment from India in US market is completing the circle of time. A developing country makes investment in the most powerful economy is something to cheer about. Donald Trump mentioned this as a big step. He said, “It is good that India is investing in our country. It is reciprocal as we are doing the same in India”. In international political terms, this reciprocity in a way takes India to symmetric relations with US.
Fifth, Houston rally was an event that marked a historic occasion for the two big democracies coming together publicly. Attempts were made in the past to draw India close to US, but the offer was negated by Nehru who was wary of “neo-imperial ambitions” of US and was obsessed with getting China the due recognition in the world. However, Prime Ministers PV Narshimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh worked diligently to correct the historical fault lines, undid Nehru’s crypto-communist approach and restored the natural proximity with US. Modi is taking it forward.
On the losses India has to suffer from Modi’s grand rally in Houston, there are quite a few. We may not realise it now. The negative consequences of an action take time to manifest that is why the leaders do not realise it as they commit an amoral or unprincipled act. The best way to avoid such repercussions is to stick to the principles and political correctness.
Modi endorsed Trump as the next presidential candidate in 2020. It is politically incorrect for a head of one sovereign country to campaign for a candidate in another. We have country-to- country relations. Supposing Democrats came to power in 2020, what should be their attitude to India and Modi? It is all right for BJP to go and campaign for Republicans, but it is not OK for the Prime Minister of India to campaign for a party candidate.
Second, Trump is inconsistent and a maverick. He is likely to face impeachment for using the President of Ukraine to malign his rival from the Democratic Party. To hook India-American relations to an unstable and unpredictable person like Trump is not wise. He said, “Modi has done wonderful things in India, and is a like Father of the country”. Even in BJP, people will find it hard to stomach. Some would argue that Trump is smartly using both Modi and Imran Khan of Pakistan to shore up his sagging image. Should we fall into his trap?
Moreover, Modi should have used this occasion to sign a security Treaty with US to the effect that whenever India’s security is threatened US will come to its aid. This could have been done in lieu of offering the US the emerging market of India, and a countervailing force to China.
Modi missed the chance of binding US to India’s security. Once that is done, India could have used its resources for development and growth not on defense purchases. If Trump is transactional, so should have been Modi. He should have made it between India and US, not him and Trump, although personal warmth and equations do help cement things.
However, at the end of the day, India’s talents and American technology, Indian market and American resources, India’s principles and America’s prowess would augur well for the world. So let us say that the two big democracies, two big diversities should come together for a better world. India’s democracy, demography and demand should prompt the US to hug the Union of India. Can India make US realise this reality?
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI.