'Howdy Modi' takes places amid a major economic crisis in India

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 21, 2019 11:13 hrs
Howdy Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi departs on a nearly week long visit to the United States where among other things he’ll address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and will headline a much publicised ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas. The event in Texas is significant as United States President Donald Trump will join him in the festivities.

A visit such as this has a clear agenda – boosting economic and trade ties, meeting with local politicians and a roundtable with CEO’s in hopes of bringing business to India. The event in Houston will be in front of an estimated audience of 50,000, mostly Indian-Americans. Independent journalist Pieter Friedrich, speaking at the Houston City Council ahead of the visit, urged locals to boycott the event; stating Modi’s affiliation to the RSS and right-wing Hindu ideology.

The event can also serve as a political one for both world leaders. Trump has also hinted of an announcement at the event. Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, in a column for The Print writes on the political equation for both world leaders attending the Houston event–

Trump’s presence at Howdy Modi certainly highlights the strength and the comfort of the India-US relationship. It also provides a very visible demonstration of the Indian-American community’s political clout in both the United States and India. And of course, it serves the partisan and personal interests of both Modi and Trump”.

With regard to trade, ahead of the visit, India said it meets the criteria for the Generalised System of Preferences and the US should reinstate the trade concessions. In June, India was removed from the list of beneficiaries which allowed duty-free entry of Indian products into the US. This comes after 44 United States Congressmen, in a joint letter to the administration sought to reinstate India among the beneficiaries. The event in Houston is significant as Texas’s fourth biggest trading partner is India.

As the Indian economy faces hurdles and the Indian auto sector in some trouble, the economic agenda for the Prime Minister is paramount. The task will be to allay any fears to investors of any significant slowdown in the Indian economy or to mitigate anything more severe with respect to the Indian economy. Frank F Islam, an entrepreneur and civic leader based in Washington, in a column for the Hindustan Times lays out the economic agenda from an –

What is at stake on Modi’s September visit to the United States is increasing the financial support from those in the Indian American diaspora for India; forging some new economic alliances; and reassuring corporate and government leaders that the economic setbacks have been only temporary and that India will soon return to a fast growth path”.

On the diplomatic front, the Kashmir situation will definitely be on the agenda. The decision to scrap Article 370 removing the special status for Jammu & Kashmir has been met with strong opposition. World leaders and the United Nations have expressed concern over the events in the state since the decision was made by the Modi government. India will hear Pakistan’s view at the 74th UNGA though Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rhetoric has given some indication on what to expect.

The event in Houston will be one where Modi might boast of his government’s performance over the past few years and perhaps over the first 100 days of their second term. Speaking to an Indian diaspora, Modi might claim victory in his decision making on Kashmir. However, protests have been planned by national human rights organisations such as Sikhs for Justice and Friends of Kashmir as the Houston Chronicle reports. Abhinav Pandya, an analyst on counter-terrorism and India’s Foreign Policy from Cornell university, in a column for The Print writes on this particular diplomatic issue in the context of Modi’s US visit –

Much has been written and said about India’s substantial diplomatic victories and Pakistan’s drubbing and embarrassment in other countries and at multilateral forums. But the diplomatic ordeals are not yet over. With US President Donald Trump in attendance at Houston, the event can be an embarrassing moment for New Delhi, raising serious questions on India’s democratic credentials vis-à-vis Kashmir”.

The Kashmir situation is complicated enough, but The United States President threw a wrench in the works when he stated that he offered to mediate the peace process between Indian and Pakistan. This caused uproar among the opposition here and they sought clarification for the comments made. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in answering a journalists’ question said in part, “I go on with a clear opinion that human rights must be fully respected in the territory…”

One of the events that Modi is scheduled to attend is where he will be given an award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation honouring him for the Swachh Bharat campaign. However, some have criticised this decision. As the New York Times reports, human rights groups and three Nobel Peace Prize winners - Mairead Maguire, Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman and Shirin Ebadi have condemned the decision. In a letter from the Nobel laureates, they stated in part, “India has descended into dangerous and deadly chaos that has consistently undermined human rights, democracy”.

Herein lies the complexity of Modi’s latest visit to the United States. A joint event with an unpopular and polarizing President followed by the usual bilateral meetings on trade and security and a diplomatic tussle with Pakistan amid criticism from human rights and other activist groups on the situation in Kashmir. The balancing act will be one to watch for.

More columns by Varun Sukumar