The word 'Texas-sized' refers to something so big that known adjectives are inadequate. It can be said after Narendra Modi's 'Howdy, Modi' event at Houston that India has scored a Texas-sized diplomatic victory on Sunday with a swagger that that befits an emerging superpower. Prime minister Modi - walking hand-in-hand with a beaming US President Donald Trump, waving hands and doing the rounds of NRG Stadium (one of America's best-known landmarks) amid thunderous applause from a 50,000-strong crowd - managed to deliver optics that is sure to boost India's geopolitical standing and further bolster his political capital at home.
However, some broad takeaways are apparent after the boisterous rally organised by Indian Americans for the visiting Indian Prime Minister where Trump appeared as an invitee along with a number of US lawmakers.
Stunning diplomatic coup
The rally proved once again Modi's political genius. The prime minister, at the peak of his popularity both at home and abroad, has repeatedly confounded critics and political opposition a home by constantly rewriting the script. His 2014 landslide win was described by some commentators as a 'Black Swan' event but five years later Modi retained his chair with an even bigger mandate. Indian economy, still the fastest among large economies in the world, has hit a road bump but that has seemingly failed to dent even slightly Modi's appeal at home.
On Sunday, the world had a first-hand experience of Modi's political acumen. The prime minister almost single-handedly revamped India's terms of engagement with the US from a platform that couldn't have been better curated for political messaging. To understand this tectonic shift that culminated in an effusive Trump declaring 'The USA loves India!', it is worth taking stock of the clash of narratives since India read down the Constitutional provision ensuring semi-autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August.
The USA Loves India! https://t.co/xlfnWafxpg
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2019
While the abrogation of Article 370 has found massive and unflinching support from the electorate at home, Modi's move to revoke 'special status' and reorganise the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories have resulted in a different narrative in the West.
As political analyst and Washington DC-based American Enterprise Institute fellow Sadanand Dhume has written in The Atlantic, "In the United States, India's actions have attracted almost universally negative coverage: A spate of news stories and op-eds have highlighted the quashing of Kashmiri human rights, the risk of war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, the threat to Indian federalism and democracy, and the rise of a muscular brand of Hindu nationalism hostile to Islam."
On Sunday, Modi let the 50,000-strong crowd speak for him as he merely mentioned the word 'Article 370'. The mighty uproar that ripped through the full-capacity NRG Stadium from a mostly Indian-American crowd at Houston must have reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the US. For close to a full minute, Modi let Trump and other US lawmakers (the full list of elected US officials at 'Howdy, Modi!' event on Sunday is available here) soak in the noise. This wasn't just showmanship, Modi was simultaneously trying to do something else.
The prime minister let Trump, US lawmakers and millions worldwide know that the abrogation of Article 370 is not an autocratic, unilateral move pushed through by an autocratic Indian government, but a decision that was backed by substantial popular appeal. That this endorsement was given by an American crowd (albeit of Indian descent, that actually drives home his point more forcefully) on American soil ought to tell Modi's critics in US media and among political circle that the dominant western narrative on Article 370 might not be accurate.
Moreover, Modi used the occasion deftly to send a message to his critics on American soil about the need for India to change the Kashmir policy. He obviously felt that the dominant western narrative on Kashmir, that expressed itself through the media and some comments by certain US lawmakers, was 'ill-informed and could even be prejudiced.
"Article 370 had deprived the people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh from development and rights. Terrorists and separatists were using it to their advantage. Now the people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh have the same rights as every Indian," he said during the address, adding that it will "end discrimination against women and Dalits." He also stressed on the fac that it was reached through a democratic provress.
"Both Houses of our Parliament discussed the move for hours, and it was telecast live across the world. Even though we don't have majority in the Upper House, both the Houses cleared the decision with two-thirds majority…" He then addressed the audience to "to give a standing ovation to the parliamentarians of India."
Once again, this was deliberately done to stress on the popular mandate behind the appeal, aimed at dispelling doubts among doubters in the US and refuting Pakistani propaganda that the BJP government has taken an autocratic, Islamophobic decision rooted in Nazi philosophy in placing mobile communication blockade across Jammu and Kashmir. The fact that US lawmakers on stage were seen applauding Modi, along with optics of Trump walking hand-in-hand with Modi, making a round of the stadium, waving at the crowd — appeared to endorse India's point of view. It should be interpreted as a stunning diplomatic win for India.
A message to Democrats not to take Indian-American votes for granted
The second takeaway pertains to domestic US politics. Modi's speech on Article 370 and the response from the crowd was a subtle hint to US lawmakers (especially the Democrats) that they cannot take support from the Indian-American community for granted. Analysts say that almost 80 per cent of the 4-million strong and influential Indian-American community in the US vote Democrats, but in the light of the adverse Kashmir narrative emanating mostly out of some lawmakers (such as Bernie Sanders or Ilhan Omar) that situation could change, albeit marginally, in Trump's favour.
New York Times quoted MR Rangaswami, the founder of Indiaspora, a group that tries to organise Indian-Americans, as saying that events such as 'Howdy, Modi!' has not only helped Indian-American community become more relevant in the US, but "Trump's appearance here was an opportunity to increase his 14 percent showing among Indian-Americans in 2016. He could hope he could change some minds… It could happen."
It wasn't a coincidence that Modi went overboard with Trump, and seemingly deviated from taking a bipartisan approach towards US domestic politics that has long been India's stated position. He openly called for 'Abki baar, Trump sarkar', and repeated Trump's electoral slogan, 'Make America Great Again'. This was hardly a subtle endorsement. It was a Texas-sized ratification for Trump, urging the Indian-American community to vote for the POTUS in 2020 Presidential elections. The hint to the Democrats was that unless India's viewpoint on Kashmir is not accorded importance and consideration, then it could cost the Democrats electorally.
This is political messaging at best, and at the heart of it lies a calculation that if efforts to raise funds for the Republicans go up even slightly after this event, Modi may put Trump in debt. The terms of this quid-pro-quo are not yet clear, but it could be anything between getting a breather from Trump on trade issues where the US president has come rather hard at India (as he has against nearly all nations with the US runs a trade deficit). Notably, Trump didn't mention trade issues, his pet peeve against India, even once.
Importance of the Indian-American community
Trump was evidently not using his official podium while addressing the crowd but the one that had US-India flag. Not only does the US President's presence (it turned out to be more than just a guest appearance as planned earlier) at an Indian diaspora event with an Indian prime minister as the star of the show signal a strong endorsement of the Indian-American community (whose votes are most sought especially in Texas which apparently is turning 'purple' from 'red'), Trump's singling out of Indian companies that have created jobs in the US and praise for the Americans of Indian descent who have accustomed themselves to American way of life and is adding value to the nation as an influential, affluent, hard-working community speaks of a clear distinction between immigrants — good (Indian) and bad (illegal).
At a time when immigration has become a hot-button political issue, even more so in the US, Trump's ratification of Indian-American community adds value to the diaspora, and in effect also enhances India's stature in the US.
Demolition of Pakistan
Modi's political acumen again came to the fore in the way he highlighted Pakistan's nefarious designs on a stage that was more closely followed globally than dreary UN general assembly debates. Modi is aware that Pakistan will unleash its anti-India tirade and propaganda on Kashmir once again at the UN, and he utilized Sunday's event to drive home the message that Pakistan's use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy is a global concern, and the world must fight a decisive battle against terror and countries who incubate, nurture and sponsor terror. "It is time to fight a decisive battle against terrorism and all those who promote terrorism," said Modi, urging the crowd to give Trump a standing ovation for his steadfast commitment to battling terrorism.
Here, Modi perhaps got more than he bargained for as the US President seemed to understand India's security concerns and drew a parallel between India and the US on the need for strong border security. He referred to 'radical Islamic terrorism' as a common enemy of humanity — drawing rapturous applause and then proceeded to add that "both India and the US understand that to keep our communities safe we must protect our borders."
This may be taken not only as a ratification of India's position on cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan, but also an endorsement of the abrogation of Article 370 whose fulcrum lies in the fact that an ineffectual Constitutional provision did make it easy for Pakistan to export terror. This is as complete a backing of India's 5 August move on Kashmir by a US president as any, and it is sure to push Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan deeper into depression.
The Hindu quoted ORF senior fellow Ashok Malik in a report as saying, "On India's concerns over cross-border terrorism, I think Mr. Trump went beyond the script, and certainly the expectations of the government."
US-India ties stronger than ever
The presence of US lawmakers (both Republicans and Democrats) at the event was already indicative of the strong bipartisan support that India enjoys in the US. But Sunday's event went a step further than just showcasing the two nations as "natural allies" and those with "shared values". Trump and Modi's joint 'victory lap' and US President's reluctance to pick up his favourite topic of nettlesome trade ties points to a tighter bonhomie.
— ANI (@ANI) September 22, 2019
Trump's mention of radical Islamic terrorism, endorsement of India's position on Kashmir and celebration of Indian-American community as a "good immigrants" who contribute to America's prosperity without being a burden on its taxpayers indicate a deeper synergy between Trump and Modi based on some amount of personal chemistry. Ahead of a prickly UNGA summit, this is good news for India.
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Updated Date: Sep 23, 2019 16:23:50 IST