The event was choreographed to celebrate Modi’s return to the United States after what seemed an interminably long gap of two years and three months.
The political managers of Modi and US President Donald 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 concessions to the US that “would allow Trump to claim a victory on one of his signature issues,” to quote from the Washington Post report. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar probably alluded to it when he told reporters on Tuesday that he expected to see some of the “sharper edges” in the US-India relationship “addressed in some form in the not-too-distant future.”
Trump has alluded to making some big announcement during “Howdy, Modi.”
Politics in Texas
Texas was one of the potential swing states in the 2016 US presidential election, where Trump won by a 9% 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 on 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 ExxonMobil and Cheniere Energy. Modi has informed Trump that India wants to continue being a buyer of US energy and, more important, 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 US energy officials will be in attendance in Houston.
In sum, New 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 Indian 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 US 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 United States’ acquiescence with what New Delhi has done in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, Trump seems to be conscious of such a possibility.
At any rate, the day after “Howdy, Modi,” he’ll have a bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister 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 New 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. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad 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 Bedouin, in a nostalgic reminder of former heroic battles, bringing to life timeless victories and pride of Saudi history.
Trump stays silent
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 the US were to protect Saudi Arabia at all, 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 US, 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 would know Trump by now. Why do such a gig in Texas, which must be costing a fortune to the Sangh Parivar – a collection of Hindu nationalist organizations?
In 2016, the Modi government rooted for Hillary Clinton – and Trump won. What if Joe Biden wins in 2020? Palmer Report says Biden now enjoys a double-digit lead over Trump.
Rahul Gandhi had 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.