In what would be their first of two meetings in a few days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump shared the stage in Houston this weekend for the ‘Howdy Modi’ event. Almost 50,000 were in attendance at the NRG stadium. Organised by the non-profit Texas India Forum with the theme “Shared Dreams, Bright Futures”, the event was previewed as a significant moment for Indo-US ties and delivered on the spectacle. Viju Cherian, in a column for Moneycontrol describes the event and its symbolism –
“To be sure, events such as Howdy Modi are essentially a spectacle, meant to show the people back home that ‘See how well we're doing on the world stage’. It is, by its very nature, a media event, an occasion for hype and bombast”.
But the two main people were Modi and Trump, polarizing figures in their own way, but leaders of their respective democracies. Navtej Sarna, Former Ambassador of India to the US, in an op-ed for the Hindustan Times, writes on this relationship –
“The most obvious takeaway from the event was the personal chemistry between the two leaders. Lavish personal praise, mutually expressed admiration for each other’s achievements, the body language throughout the event, and the political equivalent of a victory lap around the ecstatic stadium at the end said it all. Given Trump’s personality, this personal chemistry can prove to be a winning card”.
Kashmir and Pakistan
Their second meeting happened in a more formal setting; the sidelines of the UNGA on Tuesday, a day after Trump met with Pakistani Prime Minster Imran Khan. It comes weeks after Modi and his government made a controversial decision on Jammu Kashmir; one that got the world’s attention, not necessarily for the domestic policy implications, but for troubling reports coming out of the state regarding human rights.
The diplomatic fallout is ongoing with Pakistan expressing its disdain for the Modi government’s decision. The United States President expressed confidence in both sides finding a resolution. At the Houston event, Modi spoke of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and the 9/11 terrorist attacks and declared a decisive battle against terrorism. Pakistan seems to be the common theme as they often are when terrorism is discussed in Asia. The leaders of both Asian countries will have their say at the (UNGA).
"Those bothered by the abrogation of 370 cannot even take care of their own country, the world knows them as the sponsor of terror" - @narendramodi swipe at Pakistan, with Trump in front row listening. #HowdyModi— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) September 22, 2019
For India to further its economic needs, a strategic partnership with the United States is crucial. Diplomatically, things can get complicated. This strategic partnership will be seen as vital in the year ahead as the United States heads into an important election year.
Trump’s offer to mediate relations between two countries presented a conundrum. There is unanimous opposition to a third-party mediator. The Telegraph editorial offered this assessment of the event in light of Trump’s assessment and past offer to act as a mediator–
“The issue of terrorism remains a common concern between India and the US. New Delhi would be eager to interpret the show of warmth between Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi as a sign of success in foreign policy. The shadow of that controversy has now been given a quiet burial by Mr. Trump’s enthusiastic backing of the Indian prime minister”.
The event also drew criticism and protests in the days leading up to it and on the day of. With the events in Kashmir on the world’s radar and concern rising among Human Rights groups, protestors outside the vent made their voices heard, as Sahil Wajid offered a first-hand account.
Trade was an important topic that both sides would be discussing as India stated ahead of Modi arriving in the US. However, on Tuesday, both countries failed to reach a Fair Trade Agreement. The current US administration withdrawing zero duty benefits to Indian exporters worth $5.6 billion certainly didn’t help matters.
The economic significance is important as well; specifically, trade. India cannot afford to have a trade war similar to the one that the United States is having with China. A slew of domestic policy announcements from the Finance Ministry to ease any fears has taken place over the past couple of weeks. The Livemint editorial states that Modi’s trip should benefit India economically and the event should result in something material –
“Whether new heights are scaled would depend on the material benefits that accrue to both sides. Commerce must thus be top priority. Our interests converge on the geopolitical need for India’s rapid economic emergence. The sooner the Houston high translates into tangible gains on that score, the better chance India would stand in exercising greater clout in Asia”.
The Houston event in some ways set the tone for the following couple of days for Modi.
The event can have some negative consequences. There is some criticism of the event being a mixing of domestic partisan politics of both countries by both leaders. In an interview with the New Yorker, New York Times Columnist Roger Cohen defended Modi against criticism describing him in a column as “measured, ascetic and not driven by impulse”. Cohen said in part, “In general, I am a little skeptical of the knee-jerk liberal reaction across the board. I think one has to think very carefully”.
The Washington Post, in its coverage of the event stated “Modi delivered an unmistakable endorsement of Trump’s presidency and cast their joint appearance in historic terms”. With both leaders leading right wing governments, not all issues are necessarily aligned between them. The Hindu editorial sums it up – “The rally’s unintended outcomes could be more complex.
The rally galvanised the diaspora in support for Mr. Modi’s politics in India, and enticed Mr. Trump. Despite what Houston achieved for the two leaders, a line may have been crossed in the mixing of partisan national politics with international diplomacy”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar